Angus Fraser: England play with fire over fitness for Ashes tour

Highlights deal puts BBC back in ball game after seven-year hitch

The venue was different, as is the ownership of the little urn that England and Australia will compete for fiercely in 10 weeks' time, yet the feeling was the same as four years ago. On that occasion, when David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, revealed the squad to try to regain the Ashes, it contained a number of injured players. It was a decision that completely undermined England's quest for glory, and Graveney vowed that it would never be repeated.

Yesterday, however, it appeared nothing had changed. England's 16-man Ashes party contains six players in varying degrees of rehabilitation - in short, injured. Andrew Flintoff, who was confirmed as captain, Marcus Trescothick, Ashley Giles, Stephen Harmison, James Anderson and Liam Plunkett all failed to play in England's final game of the summer, and will need to prove their mental and physical fitness before travelling to Australia in November.

Fully fit, each of these players would automatically be in the squad but, in picking all six, England are taking a huge risk. Graveney defended the policy of a selection committee containing himself, Duncan Fletcher and Geoff Miller.

"I can understand the concerns when comparing this tour with the one four years ago, but I think we are better organised," he said. "The players are more advanced to the point of recovery, they have all worked very hard and we have greater specialist medical coverage this time.

"As a management team we have learnt from our mistakes and we believe the players will all be fit by the time we go to Australia. Four years ago Andrew Flintoff and Darren Gough could hardly walk when they arrived at the National Academy in Australia but we are confident that all the current squad's problems will be resolved. Our one area of concern is match practice and, ironically, October's Champions Trophy is now a good thing for us to be involved in. It gives us an opportunity to test some of these players, Ashley Giles being one of them."

Giles will accompany the Champions Trophy squad to India together with Flintoff, Anderson and Harmison. But unlike his fellow crocks he will not play in the tournament. During his time in India, Giles will continue his rehabilitation from a hip injury and attempt to play some local cricket. Harmison and Anderson will face fitness tests before the end of the season by playing for their counties. Durham would welcome Harmison's return, but it is hard to believe Lancashire, who are vying for their first outright championship in 72 years, would want to play a bowler who has not bowled a competitive ball this season.

Despite Graveney's optimism, England will base their National Academy squad in Perth between 15 November and 22 December, so that replacements would be only a phone call away should an emergency arise. In Western Australia, Peter Moores, the Academy director, will prepare the likes of Owais Shah, Jon Lewis and Jamie Dalrymple for Test cricket. Though sensible, the move does not inspire confidence, and heaven knows how much the whole exercise will cost.

The England and Wales Cricket Board had gone to great lengths to keep the identity of the captain secret, but it was widely known that Flintoff was their man. And so it proved.

"We have had to make a very tough decision in choosing between Flintoff and Strauss and we were fortunate to have two such outstanding candidates available in Michael Vaughan's absence," said Graveney. "Ultimately we took the view that Flintoff had demonstrated excellent leadership skills during a difficult tour of India, that he was the man in possession and he deserved a further opportunity to continue as captain.

"Freddie is an inspirational figure, he bats, bowls and leads from the front. The Aussies fear him, as they do quite a lot of our players. Strauss was disappointed but put his full support behind Freddie. He realises if we are to succeed in Australia everyone needs to pull together."

Flintoff, looking fit and strong, has started running in the past week but the true test of his fitness will come when he starts to bowl. The all-rounder, with the exception of an operation, went through the same procedure in mid-summer, but broke down when he began bowling. Flintoff will initially play in the Champions Trophy as a batsman and will start bowling in the nets. Should these sessions go well, it would be hard to stop him bowling properly in the latter stages of the tournament.

England supporters will be monitoring his progress with enormous interest because the fate of the Ashes could be decided here. Playing Flintoff as a batsman in the Champions Trophy is acceptable but it is arguable whether he would hold a place in the Test side if he could not contribute with the ball.

Flintoff is extremely optimistic of making a full recovery, and contributing significantly as an all-rounder. "It [the ankle] has responded well to everything I have done, the hill running, the 5km runs," he said. "I am confident my ankle is in a better state than it was before the operation."

He was equally upbeat about his ability to get the best out of the side. "I am proud and excited about leading England in Australia," said Flintoff. "It has not really sunk in yet but I am sure it will over the next week or two.

"I lead from the front. I go out there and I don't ask someone to do something I wouldn't do myself. I am a proud person and every time I walk out on to the pitch I give everything I can to the team. I feel I've got the lads' respect and I respect them."

As for pipping Strauss for the post, Flintoff dismissed any potential problems by saying: "Straussy is my mate, and he will always be involved. He is someone I speak to on a regular basis [in] a match. He is great to have around so he [won't] feel left out."

The BBC will televise England cricket matches for the first time in seven years after winning the rights to broadcast highlights of this winter's Ashes series. The network last televised Test cricket in 1999 but will now become the only terrestrial broadcaster to show England's Test and one-day matches in a six-month deal which expires at the end of April 2007. The BBC will show highlights of all five Ashes Tests and the triangular one-day series, which also features New Zealand. They also have the rights to highlights of next year's World Cup in the West Indies.

The Suspect Six: Can they last the trip Down Under?

Ashley Giles

Broke down in Pakistan in November 2005. Had an operation on his left hip in London a month later. That was followed by a further operation for a condition called Gilmore's Groin in April this year. He broke down when he started bowling in the nets and was sent to a specialist surgical centre in Denver, Colorado, where he underwent a three-hour operation on the right hip. Should be ready to bowl by the end of the month.

Marcus Trescothick

A far trickier case. Here the problem is a mental one rather than physical. He left the tour in February just before the start of the Test series against India citing "personal reasons". By the end of the tour this was changed to "a virus". Came through this summer until the middle of the NatWest series against Pakistan, when it was announced that he had withdrawn from the Champions Trophy to complete a course of treatment for a stress-related condition.

Andrew Flintoff

The Lancashire all-rounder underwent an operation to remove a bony spur in his left ankle 15 months ago. After complaining of discomfort during the Sri Lanka series, was ordered to rest. But on his return to action against Kent he broke down when bowling during the second innings. Had a further operation on the ankle to eradicate scar tissue in July. Not bowling yet, just running.

Liam Plunkett

He suffered a side strain playing for Durham against West Indies A in late July. Ironically he had been included in the County team in order to get in some batting practice. He has not bowled since and, although he is bowling in the nets, is not expected to play again this season.

James Anderson

Bowled well in his one Test against India in March, but on his return home was found to be suffering from a stress fracture of the back and has not bowled a ball in a competitive match, although he may feature before the end of the season, with Lancashire likely to loan him out.

Steve Harmison

He finished the fourth Test against Pakistan at The Oval last month complaining of a sore back, but extensive examinations including X-rays and scans have not revealed the cause of his discomfort, but he is expected to be able to bowl in Durham's final Championship match against Yorkshire next week.

David Llewellyn

Essential guide to the Ashes

THE SQUAD

Age/Tests

A Flintoff (Lancs, capt) 28/62

AJ Strauss (Middlesex) 29/31

ME Trescothick (Soms) 30/76

AN Cook (Essex) 21/9

KP Pietersen (Hants) 26/18

PD Collingwood (Durham) 30/15

IR Bell (Warwickshire) 24/18

CMW Read (Notts, wkt) 28/13

GO Jones (Kent, wkt) 30/31

SI Mahmood (Lancs) 24/5

MJ Hoggard (Yorkshire) 29/58

SJ Harmison (Durham) 27/45

MS Panesar (Northants) 24/10

AF Giles (Warwickshire) 33/52

JM Anderson (Lancs) 24/13

LE Plunkett (Durham) 21/6

THE ITINERARY

November

10v Australian Prime Minister's XI (Canberra)

12-14v New Sth Wales (Sydney)

17-19v Sth Australia (Adelaide)

23-27 v Australia (1st Test, Brisbane)

December

1-5 v Australia (2nd Test, Adelaide)

9-10v Western Australia (Perth)

14-18 v Australia (3rd Test, Perth)

26-30 v Australia (4th Test, Melbourne)

January

2-6 v Australia (5th Test, Sydney)

9 v Australia (Twenty20, Sydney, day/night)

12 v Australia (VB Series, Melbourne, day/night)

14 Australia v New Zealand (VB Series, Hobart)

16 v New Zealand (VB Series, Hobart)

19 v Australia (VB Series, Brisbane, day/night)

21 Australia v New Zealand (VB Series, Sydney, day/night)

23 v New Zealand (VB Series, Adelaide, day/night)

26 v Australia (VB Series, Adelaide, day/night)

28 Australia v New Zealand (VB Series, Perth, day/night)

30 v New Zealand (VB Series, Perth, day/night, tbc)

February

2 v Australia (VB Series, Sydney, day/night)

4 Australia v New Zealand (VB Series, Melbourne, day/night)

6 v New Zealand (VB Series, Brisbane, day/night, tbc)

9 VB Series, first final (Melbourne, day/night)

11 VB Series, second final (Sydney, day/night)

13 VB Series, third final (if needed, Brisbane, day/night)

THE ACADEMY SQUAD (In Australia, on standby for Ashes tour): RS Bopara (Essex), SCJ Broad (Leicestershire), R Clarke (Surrey), JMW Dalrymple (Middlesex), SM Davies (Worcestershire, wkt), EC Joyce (Middlesex), RWT Key (Kent), J Lewis (Gloucestershire), G Onions (Durham), MJ Prior (Sussex, wkt), OA Shah (Middlesex), TC Smith (Lancashire), CT Tremlett (Hampshire), MH Yardy (Sussex).

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