Flintoff fails as England flop in Ashes tour opener

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The Independent Online

England's 166-run drubbing to a modest Prime Minister's XI will have left those players touring Australia for the first time in no doubt of the size of the challenge that faces them over the coming weeks. Marcus Trescothick, Ashley Giles, Stephen Harmison and Matthew Hoggard - veterans of England's last visit to Australia in 2002-03 - would, in an attempt not to overawe the virgin tourists, have played down the intensity of the cricket they were about to play. But the rough, uncompromising and ruthless way in which England were cast aside yesterday will have hit Andrew Flintoff's squad like one of the huge road trains that roll across the outback.

Flintoff attempted to play down the importance of the limited-overs defeat in Canberra, but he and Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, will know that the next 10 days are crucial to the team's chances of retaining the Ashes. The first Test in Brisbane is less than two weeks away and there are a number of questions that need answering and decisions that have to be made.

Do England have enough time to prepare themselves properly for Brisbane?

The two remaining warm-up games, against New South Wales and South Australia, take on even greater significance following yesterday's defeat. They are three-day matches and, as with the Prime Minister's XI, each opponent will be doing its upmost to unsettle and undermine England. Flintoff stressed that his side are notoriously slow starters, and this is true, but on previous tours the opposition have not been as strong, and they have had the wisdom and calmness of Michael Vaughan to call on.

Fletcher is in favour of playing only a couple of games before the first Test of a tour, believing that as much can be achieved in the nets as the middle. England's performance in the first Test will show whether this is true. Brisbane is a pivotal game because Australia are unlikely to allow England back in the series should they go ahead.

Aren't England badly out of form, having not played well since the Test series against Pakistan?

They haven't, but let's not get too despondent. England have played only one-day cricket since the ball-tampering affair at the Oval, and they are not very good in this form of the game. The encouraging thing is that this England side have not allowed poor one-day form to affect the way they play Test cricket. England know they are an excellent Test side and, despite one-day results, enter Test matches believing they will win. England can turn things around before Brisbane but it will not be easy.

What was the rationale behind the Canberra selection? Where were Harmison and Hoggard, and why did both Monty Panesar and Giles play?

It seems England were unsure about what they were trying to take from the game. In an attempt to get the tour off to a winning start they picked the best one-day side they could from the Test squad but, at the same time, wanted to compare the merits of the two spinners.

Harmison and Hoggard will both play in the first Test and should have been picked yesterday. Each has struggled to control the white ball but the game yesterday was played with a red one and they could have done with the practice. James Anderson is unlikely to play in Brisbane and Paul Collingwood's bowling will be irrelevant so 20 overs of preparation have been frittered away.

Fletcher and Flintoff, the selectors when England are on tour, may have been looking to protect the confidence of both Harmison and Hoggard, but this is not a good sign. It would have been hoped that the pair, with more than 400 Test wickets between them, would be strong enough to come through such a match even if they did get a bit of stick.

Sajid Mahmood got a pasting, didn't he?

He did. He also bowled a lot of no-balls that were not called. A Test umpire will not let him get away with this. It will be interesting to see how he reacts to conceding 97 runs in nine overs. He made several fumbles in the field, too, and it looked like the Aussie crowd may have got to him, which is a bit of a worry.

Why do Australians put such a great emphasis on fielding?

Australian teams pride themselves on their fielding. Cricketers are rarely selected for this aspect of their game - it is something they give for free and it highlights their commitment to the team. It is one of the basic skills of the game, too, and they expect it to be performed properly.

Yesterday England began well in the field. They were lively and committed but the enthusiasm fell away as the opposition took control. Errors appeared and this will have been noted by everyone in Australia. Cricket grounds Down Under are far bigger than in England - they are used for Australian Rules football in the winter - and players need to be alert at all times. Australian batsmen run hard between the wickets and put fielders under pressure. They push those positioned on the boundary, often taking on players with a weak throw. They also identify those they can run singles to and it was noticeable that they ran on each occasion they hit the ball to Panesar. The derisive cheers of the crowd can quickly turn an organised and disciplined fielding side in to a shambles.

Panesar bowled only three overs to Giles' eight yesterday, what is going on here?

Panesar may have been England's find of the summer but Fletcher is a huge fan of Giles. Fletcher is paranoid about the No 8 batting position. He feels that the man batting here has to be able to score runs, and that Giles is the best man for the spot. It would be disappointing to see England drop Panesar, a potential match-winner, for Giles because it would be a negative decision. Yet, despite Giles having bowled just eight competitive overs in almost 12 months, it is looking more and more likely. The team selected for the match in Sydney against New South Wales starting tomorrow could give it away. If Giles is picked he will probably play in Brisbane, a venue where England will select only one spinner.

And what about the wicketkeepers, why was Geraint Jones picked ahead of Chris Read?

Again there is confusion and again Fletcher has his favourites. In England David Graveney and Geoff Miller have a say in selection but on tour Fletcher has what he wants - total control. Everyone is aware that Fletcher is not a big fan of Read, although nobody quite knows what he has done to upset him, and, once again, tomorrow's team will provide a strong pointer.

Jones took a brilliant catch to give Flintoff his first wicket of the tour, but he then dropped a relatively simple chance - Phil Jaques in the twenties - which proved costly. His unbeaten 13 highlighted his determination to show that he is the better batsman of the two. Read's failures in the Champions Trophy did not help his cause. It was interesting to hear Shane Warne state that England were a stronger team with Panesar and Read in it. Perhaps he knows that neither will play on 23 November.

Were there any positives to come out of the Canberra debacle?

Yes, and it was a big one. Flintoff looked superb with the ball. He powered in, hit the pitch hard and bowled the ball in the business area. He had a smile on his face and was comfortably England's best bowler. England have said they will play five bowlers in each Test to ease his workload which is an honourable enough thing. But, really, it is a waste of time. If Flintoff continues to bowl as he did yesterday he will send down more overs than any other bowler. And so he should. Ashes cricket is not something you play in from a compromised position. Flintoff has to go for it. He cannot and does not want to be treated with care.

If Vaughan is fit should he be brought in to the squad?

No. Why? The Ashes are the responsibility of the 16 players selected and introducing Vaughan would unsettle things. His presence would undermine the captain and there are no guarantees he would score runs. The current form of Alastair Cook, Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood is better than his and Vaughan should wait until the the one-day series in 2007.

Meanwhile, the Aussies continue to roll along?

They do. Confidence will be high after the Champions Trophy victory. Glenn McGrath is coming along nicely and Shaun Tait is bowling at blistering pace, pushing his case for Test inclusion. England's batsmen look certain to be tested by the short ball. But do not believe what Ricky Ponting is saying; it is Australia who are under pressure, not England, and pressure does strange things to a team - as England found out in Canberra.