Angus Fraser: Flintoff's men in good shape for their ultimate test

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The Independent Online

England will be reasonably content with their on-field preparations for Thursday's first Test in Brisbane. After a lamentable start in Canberra, where Andrew Flintoff's side were thrashed by the Prime Minister's XI, England supporters would have feared the worst, but the team has performed admirably in its final two warm-up matches, against New South Wales and South Australia, and fans can now look forward to the Ashes with optimism.

Neither three-day match was won but the results were largely academic. The sole objective of such games is that those selected for the first Test are confident, acclimatised and in good form when they walk out to play. And this, essentially, is the case.

Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook, Ian Bell, Kevin Pietersen, Paul Collingwood and Andrew Flintoff, England's top six in Brisbane, have each passed 50 in one of their three innings, and two - Pietersen and Bell - have gone on to post hundreds. Ideally, Duncan Fletcher, the coach, would have wanted each to have had one more innings, but he will be delighted that they are in good touch.

The departure of Marcus Trescothick was a blow but not because Cook is incapable of filling his place at the top of the order. He is. But Trescothick's absence means that Bell will bat at three, a position where his flirting outside off-stump may be exposed, and Collingwood will play. Collingwood is a commendable cricketer, but he is not as good a batsman as Trescothick, which makes England a slightly weaker side.

England have altered their batting order elsewhere, with Pietersen moving down the order to five. Pietersen has batted at four in his last 10 Test appearances, even though he came in at five against Australia in the 2005 Ashes. The decision appears to have been made prior to Trescothick leaving and has been brought on by England's desire to protect their most dangerous player from the new ball. Collingwood will bat at four, with his aim being to blunt Australia's seamers when they are at their freshest. There are arguments for and against the tactic but Pietersen averages seven more runs an innings batting at four.

The flip side of England batting only once in each game is that the bowlers - with the exception of Stephen Harmison - have had an excellent workout. Harmison's lack of overs is a concern but he is certain to play in Brisbane if he is fit. Sajid Mahmood, his possible replacement, is inconsistent so it would make sense to play the more experienced bowler.

Flintoff, Matthew Hoggard and James Anderson have come along nicely. Flintoff has the ability to find bowling form relatively easily. It is not luck, it comes from possessing a simple but strong bowling action and through delivering thousands of overs in his career. England were right to limit his overs in the warm-up games but in the Test matches he must be prepared to carry a heavy workload.

Hoggard is moving along nicely, as an experienced bowler should, and his true test will come in Brisbane. Hoggard had a torrid time on his last visit to Australia, where his six wickets cost him 63 runs each, and it will be interesting to see if there is any scarring from that experience. He is a much better bowler now than he was in the 2002-03 series and it is crucial that he gives England a decisive and controlled start.

Anderson has benefited most from England's warm-up games. Having missed all but the last two weeks of the 2006 domestic season with a back injury few would have expected him to feature in the Test series, especially with a slightly re-modelled action. He is unlikely to take the new ball but has shown that he can reverse-swing the old one.

Monty Panesar has played in all three practice matches and has sent down more overs than any other bowler, but he has not cemented his place in the side for the first Test. The spinner has bowled with control but he and Fletcher would have been hoping for more than three wickets in 70 overs. The 24-year-old remains the more attacking option but the shadow of Ashley Giles grows larger with every day.

It is encouraging that most players are in form but the quality of England's performance will come down to how they handle the occasion. Thursday's side could contain only one player - Hoggard - with experience of playing Test cricket in Australia. The good thing is that this means the majority of the team have no negative experiences of playing Down Under; the bad is that they may not be prepared for what hits them in the most eagerly awaited Test series in decades.

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