Ponting: Clarke set to play Ashes opener

Brisbane: Australia captain Ricky Ponting has declared Michael Clarke fit to start in the Ashes cricket series opener against England after overcoming a persistent back problem.

Clarke batted in a net session Wednesday on the eve of the first Test, doing enough to get the backing of his captain, who had previously said the decision would be made on Thursday morning.

"Michael Clarke has got through his work very well in the last couple of days," Ponting said.

"I`m not sure what the long term diagnosis is but I`m sure he`ll get through this game."

Usman Khawaja, who was on standby for Clarke, was released from Australia`s squad to play in the domestic Sheffield Shield competition, as was left-arm paceman Doug Bollinger.

Peter Siddle was preferred to Bollinger despite not having played since January due to his own back problem.

Siddle`s inclusion reunites Australia`s pace attack that contested the losing 2009 Ashes campaign, joining Mitchell Johnson, Ben Hilfenhaus and allrounder Shane Watson.

They will likely be joined by debutant spinner Xavier Doherty in Australia`s attack for the match at the Gabba, where the hosts boast a dominant record.

Bollinger`s exclusion was surprising, given he had arguably been Australia`s best bowler since that losing 2009 Ashes series while many members of the team had struggled.

That decision, plus the selection of Doherty ahead of incumbent spinner Nathan Hauritz could be considered something of a gamble by Australia, which must win the series to regain the Ashes.

Doherty`s inclusion is perhaps Australia`s most contentious bowling selection since Stuart MacGill was preferred to Shane Warne in the West Indies in 1999.

Although Doherty has made a good start to his domestic campaign this season, taking 11 wickets from three games compared to Hauritz`s four, his inclusion in the side appears to be at least partly due to Kevin Pietersen`s perceived weakness against slow left-arm bowlers.

Pietersen is still viewed by Australia as England`s dangerman despite averaging under 34 in 2010 and the hosts hope Doherty will add to the South African-born batsman`s 17 dismissals against left-arm spinners in 66 Tests.

The selection has been blasted by many pundits including Warne, who also criticised Ponting`s field-setting for Hauritz in the two recent Tests in India which Australia lost.

Australia`s spin worries seem exacerbated by England possessing Graeme Swann who is the leading wicket-taker in world cricket with 51 dismissals already this year.

Four years ago, it was England`s preparation which was derided as Australia`s settled side went on to achieve a 5-0 clean sweep to put themselves down as one of the best in Ashes history.

This time England`s pre-test warm-ups have been near perfect, recording convincing victories over Western Australia and Australia A eliminating any form worries ahead of Thursday.

England captain Andrew Strauss had impressed thus far on tour, but Johnson insists he will be tested with the short ball.

"I looked at a bit of footage of Strauss under the short ball," Johnson said. "He can play it when it`s about chest high but when you get it right on the money he really does struggle."

Jonathan Trott at number three is likely to receive similar treatment as he struggled when forced on the back foot in his native South Africa 12 months ago.

Strauss` strike partner Alastair Cook is seen as a weak link despite his hundred in the drawn three-day match with South Australia, but he insists he is better prepared this time.

"I`ve got 60 Tests under my belt now and I`ve experienced the highs and lows, so I feel far more complete as a cricketer," Cook said.

Ian Bell, who hit a superb 192 against Australia A, certainly looks a different player from the one who has failed to convince in his three previous Ashes series.

Australia have not lost in Brisbane since 1988 and captain Ricky Ponting will be confident of handling the England attack on a ground where he averages over 100 in three Ashes contests.

The big question mark in Australia`s batting is Michael Hussey whose hundred for Western Australia last week ensured his place in the side despite averaging just 26 in his past six tests.

Australia are confident they have the upper hand in the quick bowling department and with rain in Brisbane ahead of the Test leaving a green strip and humidity likely overhead this could be where the match is won.

"Hopefully that`s where we`ll be a lot stronger because we`ve got that experience on these wickets," Johnson said.

"We`ve all got our roles and most of the time it will be about me going out and bowling fast."

England`s Stuart Broad and rookie Steven Finn seem ideally suited to Australian bouncy pitches such as the Gabba and have spent the last week in Queensland adjusting to conditions.

The only England quick with Test experience in Australia is James Anderson, who has 40 wickets to his name in 2010, but will need to vastly improve on his last tour when his five wickets in three games cost 82.60.

Johnson feels the pressure is on England as holders and having the memory of the whitewash four years ago.

"Anderson was here and didn`t do too well last time," Johnson said. "He didn`t get the ball to swing like he does back home, and Stuart Broad hasn`t played a Test here."

England vice-captain Cook insists, unlike their predecessors, pressure is something the current England side embraces.

"We know the challenge is a tough one but that excites us. We have a chance to do something special," Cook said.

Bureau Report

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