By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The absence of Ben Stokes and a rash of injuries have made for an inauspicious buildup to England's Ashes campaign but former Australia quick Ryan Harris believes it's not all doom and gloom for the tourists while their main strike bowlers are firing.
Harris, who bowled in three Ashes series including the 5-0 whitewash in the last series Down Under, coached a Cricket Australia XI to a heavy defeat in a tour match over the weekend and saw enough quality in England to paper over the cracks.
All-rounder Stokes may yet end up playing a part in the series once a police investigation wraps up into his alleged assault in Bristol, while the injuries, unwelcome as they are, have been confined mostly to the squad's fringe bowlers.
Most importantly, front-line seamers James Anderson and Stuart Broad are on their feet and so long as they stay that way, England can still threaten in the series that gets underway in Brisbane next week, according to Harris.
"If there were injuries to Broad and Anderson you'd definitely go along with that line that they probably would struggle," Harris told Reuters in a phone interview from Brisbane.
"But the bottom line is their two main bowlers that lead their attack are fit and firing.
"The third quick, who I think is going to be (Chris) Woakes, is pretty handy as well. We saw that the other night, especially under lights.
"You can’t write off teams just because of injuries. It can actually make you stronger because as a group, you come together.
"I know there’s a lot of talk out there in the media and in the public but I don’t think they’re going to be easy to beat.
"I think we’ll win, but I don’t think it will be an easy win like some people are saying."
Anderson grabbed five wickets in the tour match under the lights at Adelaide Oval, where England's players will return for the first day-night Ashes test next month.
Woakes improved as the match went on and helped skittle the modest CA XI for 75 with his four wickets in their second innings.
Broad, who was rested in Adelaide after saying he bowled "like a drain" in the Perth tour match, will get another chance to find form when the final warm-up match starts in Townsville on Wednesday.
In rare good news on the medical front for England, all-rounder Moeen Ali will play in Townsville after missing the tour matches with a side strain.
England's batting problems appear more acute, with James Vince, Mark Stoneman and Dawid Malan boasting only 15 tests between them.
Captain Joe Root's form has been patchy and opener Alastair Cook is in the midst of a lean run.
Harris, however, said batting would not decide the series.
"Both bowling attacks are world class," said the 38-year-old, now a high performance coach at Australia's National Cricket Centre academy in Brisbane.
"But I just like us in our conditions. I think our bowling line-up in our conditions is very dangerous. Bowling will dictate the series."
Harris battled a problem knee throughout a late-blooming career and overcame a string of other injuries to play 27 tests for Australia, capturing 113 wickets at an average of 23.52.
Renowned for his grit and lion-hearted performances, he formed a formidable pace attack with left-armer Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle during the 2013/14 whitewash, when the three managed to stay fit and firing through all five test matches.
He rates Australia's current trio of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins even higher but admits all will be challenged by the length of the series, particularly if England's batsmen get on top for sustained periods.
"I guess, last time, we were never really spending multiple days or 100-plus overs in the field," he said.
"If you’re out there for hour after hour for two or three days, that’s the stuff that really takes it out of you.
"Especially as a bowler, knowing that you’ve got to do it all again the next day and you’ve only got three or four wickets in the shed, mentally it does play on your mind."
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)