Ashes rivalry gives edge to England batting

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The Independent Online

Someone will make way for a fit Andrew Flintoff in Brisbane when England take on Australia in the first Ashes Test, but who will it be? Andrew Strauss, Marcus Trescothick and Kevin Pietersen are pretty much assured of their places, and it would be somewhat harsh to omit Alastair Cook following his wonderful introduction to Test cricket. Ian Bell has scored a hundred in each of his last three Test appearances and Paul Collingwood represents all that is good in this England side.

The Test series against Pakistan may have been won and the prize-money apportioned but England's cricketers still have a great deal to play for in this morning's fourth Test at the Oval. Each of the 11 selected today is desperate to play at the Gabba on 23 November in one of the most eagerly awaited Test series ever but England, even with Flintoff, will be looking to play five bowlers. This means that a batsman will miss out and this week's Test gives each of them a chance to impress.

The Oval Test often affects the personnel and direction England take during the winter, and Strauss, captaining for possibly the last time before Flintoff's return, admitted that the performance of individuals over the next five days will influence the side that are selected in Brisbane.

"There is healthy competition for places in the England side now and I feel that it is good," Strauss said. "It spurs people on to better performances and the more good performances a player puts in the greater the chance of him putting his name up for selection for the first Test against the Aussies. Some of the guys in this side might not be playing in the one-day games against Pakistan that follow the Test so what happens this week is very important.

"It does not matter where you get your motivation from. As a team we are very motivated to keep winning after our tricky start to the summer against Sri Lanka. And as individuals we all have motivation to keep performing well, because the other guys in the team are doing it and there is competition for places.

"It is also important that we keep our momentum because winning becomes a habit. If we can make it three wins in a row, it will give us good momentum going in to the Ashes but, more immediately, it will give us confidence going in to the one-day series. We all want to improve on what we did against Sri Lanka in the summer and if we can win this Test it will give us a nice launch pad to go into that series against Pakistan."

The batsmen of both teams should find the Oval pitch to their liking. The surface rewards bowlers who perform their art well and exposes those who are not good enough, but the true bounce makes it a wonderful place to score runs. It will also be interesting to see how Monty Panesar performs. Headingley, the venue of the last Test, was considered to be a graveyard for spinners, yet the Oval is a ground that historically helps them.

It was in south London that Philip Tufnell had two of his better days in 1991 and 1997 and it was here that Shane Warne took 12 wickets against England last year. And the nature of the pitch does not appear to be changing. Surrey, in Anil Kumble, Ian Salisbury and Nayan Doshi, have played three spinners in a first-class game here this year.

Panesar enters the game with many cricket lovers believing England have unearthed a Warne or a Muttiah Muralitharan, but these are ridiculous comparisons. Panesar is an exceptional bowler but, as a traditional finger spinner, his range of deliveries is limited and he has little chance of following in the footsteps of these two greats.

Strauss sidestepped questions about the captaincy and who should lead the side in Australia, preferring instead to talk about the team continuing their winning run. "I have enjoyed doing the job and if I was asked to lead the side in Australia it would be a massive honour. But if they think Fred [Flintoff] is the man he will have my support. Whatever happens, there will be 16 or 17 players travelling to Australia with their sole intention being to retain that little urn."

While England's attention begins to turn to the winter, Pakistan will be keen to finish the Test section of the tour on a positive note. England have played well throughout the series, but Pakistan have been a disappointment. Injury has deprived the tourists of their three main bowlers, but they have shown little of the fire we have come to expect from them.

Some of this passion may reappear with the return of Mohammad Asif, a rangy fast bowler who missed the first three Tests with an elbow injury. Asif is expected to play ahead of Mohammad Sami who has bowled inconsistently.

Pakistan will make further changes at the top of their order, with Imran Farhat and Mohammad Hafeez becoming their fourth different opening combination of the summer.

Tour de force Who must go?

Marcus Trescothick

Test batting this summer: 313 runs at 31.3, one century.

After a turbulent winter the opener scored a hundred against Sri Lanka on his return to the side, but in his next nine innings he has passed 50 only once. He remains a high-quality player and will open in Brisbane.

Andrew Strauss

This summer: 508 runs at 50.8, two hundreds.

The captaincy has brought out the best in Strauss. His form has improved throughout the summer and he has failed to reach double figures on only one occasion. He and Trescothick will walk out together at the Gabba.

Alastair Cook

This summer: 455 runs at 50.6, two hundreds.

The tall left-hander is not the most elegant player, but has a wonderful temperament. He has played in only eight Tests but gives the appearance he has been around for years. No 3 in Oz beckons.

Kevin Pietersen

This summer: 611 runs at 61.1, three hundreds.

Pietersen will be the first batsman on the England team sheet this winter because the Aussies fear him. Overconfidence leaves him prone to the occasional soft dismissal, but he wins games. No 4.

Paul Collingwood

This summer: 429 runs at 42.9, one hundred.

After scoring 186 against Pakistan at Lord's his place in Brisbane looked assured. But the batting of Ian Bell makes him the most vulnerable member of England's line-up. Sorry, Colly, you're unlucky.

Ian Bell

This summer: 357 runs at 119.0, three hundreds.

Flintoff's ankle injury gave him his chance and, with a ton in each of the past three Tests, he has taken it. Struggled against Australia in 2005, but he must play in Brisbane, batting at No 5.

Squads for the Oval Test

ENGLAND (from): A J Strauss (Middlesex, capt), M E Trescothick (Somerset), A N Cook (Essex), K P Pietersen (Hampshire), P D Collingwood (Durham), I R Bell (Warwickshire), C M W Read (Notts, wkt), M J Hoggard (Yorkshire), J Lewis (Gloucestershire), S J Harmison (Durham), M S Panesar (Northants), S I Mahmood (Lancashire).

PAKISTAN (from): Inzamam-ul-Haq (capt), Mohammad Hafeez, Imran Farhat, Younis Khan, Mohammad Yousuf, Faisal Iqbal, Abdul Razzaq, Kamran Akmal (wkt), Shahid Afridi, Umar Gul, Danish Kaneria, Shahid Nazir, Mohammad Sami, Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, Mohammad Asif.

Weather and TV times

Weather Frequent and heavy showers. Max temp: 21C.

Television Live: Sky Sports 1, 10.30. Highlights: Five, 19.15

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