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Coulter-Nile back trouble thins Australia pace stocks

Nathan Coulter-Nile takes a break Getty Images

Josh Hazlewood looks to be in the form of his life before the Ashes, which is just as well, because Australia's pace-bowling stocks are starting to look far thinner than the national selectors, coaches and medical staff would prefer them to be.

Cricket Australia confirmed on Friday that Nathan Coulter-Nile had suffered a recurrence of back trouble, specifically a "hot spot" on a previous stress fracture. That injury takes him out of Ashes calculations, and means Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins are more or less shorn of any high-speed back-up should injury intervene during the five Tests against England.

Having been withdrawn from the most recent Sheffield Shield round out of fears his recuperating back could not yet cope with the rigours of successive first-class games, Coulter-Nile dismissed Alastair Cook in England's opening tour fixture in Perth, but then complained of acute soreness afterwards. Cue another round of rest, rehabilitation and speculation about his long-form future.

"Nathan experienced some pain in his back following the two-day tour match against England last week," Alex Kountouris, CA's head of sports science, said. "Subsequent scans have revealed an early stage aggravation of his old stress fracture. Whilst this is a setback, the good news is that it has been picked up early so we are only considering a short break from bowling while we monitor him. We expect he will have further scans over the next month which will determine when he can return to bowling."

Four years ago, it was Coulter-Nile and Doug Bollinger who served as reserve spearheads in the event of injuries to one of Ryan Harris or Mitchell Johnson, meaning they were involved in Australia's celebrations of a 5-0 sweep but did not actually take the field. This time around, Jackson Bird is now the fourth bowler in line and the South Australian Chadd Sayers is likely the fifth, particularly for the pink-ball Test match in Adelaide.

But the lack of too many other high-speed options around the country - Jhye Richardson reportedly hit 148kph for Western Australia against New South Wales in the recent Shield game but is not considered close to Test selection, while Bollinger is yet to play for first-class cricket NSW this summer - means the selectors and medical staff must think carefully about their resources.

For one thing, Cummins must now be seen not only as a third fast man but also the back-up "enforcer" should Starc succumb to injury. That may mean reconsideration of how many Test matches he can be risked in this summer, having already stated he is unsure whether or not his body will be able to cope with the rigours of five in a row.

More positive for the Ashes hosts is the fact that Hazlewood returned to first-class ranks in supreme rhythm at Hurstville Oval, twice dismantling the techniques of Hilton Cartwright, Shaun Marsh and Mitchell Marsh before Starc blasted out the WA tail. While he felt for Coulter-Nile, Hazlewood was pleasantly surprised with his own progress, meaning he readily agreed to head into training camp with Starc and Cummins without needing to play a second Shield match

"Felt the rhythm pretty early on," Hazlewood said in Sydney. "Things went pretty well the whole game. From ball one I was pretty surprised with how well the ball was coming out, how good the run-up felt, how good everything in general. I'm pretty happy with where it's at now so I don't think there's a need to play another game. I'm ready to go now and we obviously talk with the coaches and selectors and physios and whatnot, everyone is on the same page and ready to go.

"You always feel for a fellow fast bowler, especially his run the last couple of years. I feel a bit sorry for Nath, but he's done a lot of hard work to get back from different things and I'm sure he'll put tin the hard work again and come back from this one."

Observers at NSW training on Friday were treated to the sight of Starc steaming in at Steven Smith, at one point sitting the Australian captain on his backside with a swift bouncer. "It's always good fun and they're two world-class players so it always keeps you on your toes and makes sure you get everything out of the session," Hazlewood said. "There's no real going through the motions when you're bowling at those two guys.

"That's what they're always like. They're always into each other and Patty and I just do our thing. It's pretty easy to fire Starcy up, so Smithy takes it on."