TAUNTON, England (AP) — Australia captain Michael Clarke gave the beleaguered tourists a much-needed lift two weeks before the Ashes series by declaring himself fit to return to competitive action after three months out with a lower back problem.
Clarke came through Australia's first training session under new coach Darren Lehmann, who was hired on Monday to replace the fired Mickey Arthur. Clarke will start the four-day tour match against Somerset at Taunton beginning on Wednesday.
"Michael is definitely playing against Somerset, which is great news," Australia vice captain Brad Haddin said Tuesday. "It is the first match of an Ashes tour and the Australian captain is pretty excited about being involved.
"He is in a good spot. He had a good catching session this morning and a bit of a hit." Clarke hasn't played a competitive match since the tour of India in March, when Australia slipped to a humiliating 4-0 loss in the test series. During that tour, four players — including vice-captain Shane Watson — were dropped for the third test for failing to complete written reports on their views of the team's performance — a saga dubbed "Homeworkgate."
And the woes of the once-mighty Australian cricket have deepened since then, with opener David Warner first fined following a Twitter rant at senior journalists and then suspended for throwing a punch at England batsman Joe Root in a bar. That came during the Champions Trophy, where Australia failed to win a match and exited at the group stage.
Cricket Australia reacted by sacking Arthur after 19 months in charge and hiring Lehmann, a popular former test batsman who has two weeks to turn things around before the first Ashes test against England starts on July 10.
Lehmann has made a good impression already, according to Haddin. "Training was good and sharp, so the new coach got a tick today!" Haddin said Tuesday. "Darren is a good person, who loves the game of cricket and talking about it. He loves to see guys learning about cricket and has a lot of knowledge, so he is well respected over here and at home.
"He is very excited about getting the group together and playing some cricket. There has been enough talk, now it's time to get out there and enjoy the start of an Ashes tour." The inclusion of James Faulkner in the starting XI will see Australia go with a five-strong bowling attack for Lehmann's first match in charge.
Somerset's team will include Nick Compton, who appears likely to miss out on the Ashes opener at Trent Bridge, Nottingham, after being dropped for England's warm-up match against Essex starting Sunday.