Australia aiming all cannons at Flintoff the third man

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The Independent Online

In case anybody was of a mind to think differently, it was made clear yesterday exactly what Andrew Flintoff can expect from Australia this winter. It will not involve a welcome mat or what are known in these parts as felicitations.

When the England captain goes out to bat today in the unfamiliar position of No 3 it will be to face an attack ready to unleash their own Antipodean brand of fury. Everybody involved has by now declared that the Champions Trophy Group A match - a more or less must-win affair for both sides if they wish to progress - will have no bearing on the Ashes. Nobody should suppose this extends as far as not trying to undermine Flintoff.

The intention will be to get at Flintoff early and expose what might all too easily be England's soft underbelly. It was always a risk putting Flintoff at three, especially as he has been so dramatically potent lower down the order against the older, softer ball and, whatever the reasons, it was possible to sense that bowlers felt the advantage had shifted towards them.

The match may also depend on other factors. Not the least of these is how England use the new ball. Not the most common is the fact that the Hindu festival of Diwali is taking place today and fireworks are expected to be heard loud and clear throughout the match, prompting the Australia captain, Ricky Ponting, to quip that he had sent out his team to buy gas masks.

But Australia have spent much of the past 140 years attempting to dismantle England captains, and now is as good a time as any to start with Flintoff. It will be up to England's openers, Andrew Strauss and Ian Bell, to keep Flintoff away from the new ball as long as possible while taking advantage of the close field in the first 10 overs.

Ponting only narrowly managed to prevent his eyes shooting out on stalks when he was asked if Flintoff's position provided an opportunity to get a go at him with the new ball. "Absolutely," the Australia captain said.

"Putting a player like that up the order, their thinking will be the longer he can bat the better it's going to be for them, and they probably think the same thing about Kevin Pietersen as well. Our feeling is that if we can get a crack at him with the new ball and get him out that might leave them a bit thinner with the power hitters down the end of their innings, which is where he can do a lot of damage.

"I guess he's always been a middle- and lower-order batsman in his career and probably hasn't faced a lot of the new white ball. As we've seen in this series, it has swung around quite a bit here. Hopefully, we get a chance at him early, and I know all our bowlers are looking forward to the challenge."

A rough interpretation of Ponting's words would be that if there is a kitchen sink around they will hurl it at Flintoff if necessary and that his bowlers are having to be tethered and sedated to prevent them foaming at the mouth. None of this means that Flintoff is incapable of resisting everything that comes his way.

Looking at the composition of the England squad, the injured players back home and the selectors' inability to stop meddling, or perhaps their failure to have picked the right players in the first place, it was perhaps inevitable that Flintoff would have to go in at No 3 in this tournament. But it is an indictment of the planning that it is not truly a matter of design.

At No 5 Flintoff has scored 1,448 runs at an average of 45.25 and, as importantly, a strike rate of 91.8. This has made him one of the most destructive players in the world. But Flintoff appeared to be unfazed. "I have improved over the past few years," he said. "I'm comfortable with my game and have a method and technique in which I trust. I'm a more confident cricketer than I was three years ago."

It is difficult to see barnstorming hundreds being scored on the Sawai Mansingh surface - too slow, too low - but England might welcome some runs from their other power hitter, Pietersen. This is a big occasion made for him (not least if Flintoff fails) and he will be aware that the last of his three one-day hundreds was 23 innings ago.

Australia, as they demonstrated against West Indies in Mumbai on Wednesday, are not as good as they were. The form of Glenn McGrath, who has already predicted a 5-0 Ashes whitewash, is of particular fascination. He is said to feel and to have looked good in the nets but, while it would be foolhardy to write him off, he will wish to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. A similar stricture should apply England's Stephen Harmison.

England's inexperience might be crucial and that includes Flintoff's at No 3. Get him out and in at four comes Michael Yardy, who has batted only twice for England before and probably spent most of his first 24 years never expecting to do so anywhere.

Both teams need to win to keep alive realistic hopes. Australia have done so before. "We tend to play our best cricket when we are under the pump," said Ponting. It might be enough to make the difference.

Looking for clues: Who will draw first blood ahead of the Ashes? By Angus Fraser

Can the match influence the Test series?

The England players said the 2004 Champions Trophy victory over Australia made them believe they could defeat their antipodean foes. It was not just the win which created that sensation, it was the way England won: easily. This is a big game but it is bigger for Australia. They are the team who are under pressure. They need to prove the events of last year were nothing more than a one-off and every defeat the Australians suffer to England further undermines any lingering sense of superiority. England's poor one-day form means England can ascribe defeat to the format as much as the opposition.

Which captain draws first blood?

This is the first time Andrew Flintoff has captained against Australia and they will be watching closely to see if there are any areas they can exploit. They like to target the opposition captain and England will hope he stays calm, even if things do not go well. Ricky Ponting will also be keen to prove himself. His ability is being questioned after he was outmanoeuvred and outplayed by Michael Vaughan last summer. This match is effectively an eliminator and neither man will want to see his team go out of the competition so early ahead of such an enormous Test series.

Will Steve Harmison's radar work?

Harmison's ongoing waywardness is a concern. Praising him, as England did, for the way he came back and bowled his last four overs smacked of clutching at positives. His confidence is fragile. The Australians will be aware of this and, with the Ashes in mind, will look to clatter him. If the Aussies do get after him it will set back his Ashes preparations - he's not the sort of bloke who could just write it off as a bad day. England do need to persevere with Harmison as the way he finds form is by bowling lots of overs.

How fit is Glenn McGrath?

McGrath has hardly bowled in 2006 after helping his wife fight cancer. He looked tentative against the West Indies in Australia's opening Champions Trophy game, especially when Chris Gayle tried to get after him. This was unusual for McGrath, who normally has total faith in himself. He did not open the bowling, which suggests he is not at full tilt. He only reached 75-80mph and did not bowl his full allocation. He will need to find a bit more in the Ashes. But while he is there to be attacked, are England's batsmen in form to carry it off?

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