Flintoff leads England bowlers' rehabilitation

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The Independent Online

Six months ago the Champions Trophy was looked upon as a nonentity, a meaningless one-day tournament that prevented England's players from resting their weary bodies prior to the Ashes. Yet this view has changed during a summer in which many of the team have been forced to the sidelines by injury.

For Andrew Flintoff, Stephen Harmison, James Anderson and Ashley Giles, who travels with the squad to India as a non-player as part of his rehabilitation, the tournament, which starts today when Sri Lanka take on Bangladesh in a qualifying match in Mohali, will play a crucial role in their preparations for Australia. Each of the bowlers has yet to prove that he is fully fit and needs match practice.

The greatest attention will surround Flintoff, the captain, whose ankle injury has prevented him from playing for England for four months. It was initially thought that Flintoff would play solely as a batsman in India but there have been positive noises coming from him over the last few weeks and it is hoped he will be bowling well before the end of the tournament.

"Once I get to India I can start building up to a date," Flintoff said yesterday. "I can't set a date when I'll be bowling again, but it is something I'm looking to progress.

"I'm excited," Flintoff added of the Champions Trophy. "I've played in one before and got to the final. Losing hurts. A lot has been made of the Ashes. But we have got to address what is in front of us first - and that is this tournament.

"I'm looking forward to leading the lads out and going out to bat - that is something I have not done for a while."

Flintoff's fitness will have a huge impact on England's chances of success this winter. But despite all the training and yomping on the Pennines, the true test of his recovery will come when he bowls. The 29-year-old has accepted that he is unlikely to bowl pain-free throughout the rest of his career. England fans will be hoping that the discomfort remains at a tolerable level.

Harmison, a reluctant tourist at the best of times, finished the season with a back injury and has not bowled since. England will need him to be at his best if they are to have any chance of retaining the Ashes and in order for him to find top form, he needs to bowl plenty of overs before 23 November.

Anderson and Giles were surprise selections for both this and the Australia tour. Anderson played a couple of games for Lancashire at the end of the season after recovering from a stress fracture of the back and Giles has not bowled competitively this year.

While Fletcher and several of his bigger-named players will have one eye on the Ashes, others will be very keen to impress in India. Ed Joyce, Michael Yardy, Jon Lewis, Jamie Dalrymple and Rikki Clarke will return home at the conclusion of the tournament but each will be desperate to earn a place in the VB series which follows the Ashes. Selection for this would then give them an excellent chance of travelling to the Caribbean in March and playing in the World Cup.

The last Champions Trophy was won by the West Indies two years ago and, as World Cup hosts, Brian Lara's side will be keen to show they are a force in this form of the game, but they do not start as favourites.

This honour, unsurprisingly, goes to Australia who will once again be the side to beat. India are a dangerous team on their day but their bowling lacks experience. Even without their inspirational captain, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Pakistan are potentially the best outfit in the tournament, while Sri Lanka also have a very good squad, as England found out when they were walloped 5-0 in the summer.

Champions Trophy Fixtures

Qualifying round of Sri Lanka, West Indies, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe starts today.

Group A: 15 Oct India v England (Jaipur); 18 Oct Australia v Qualifier 2; 21 Oct Australia v England (Jaipur); 26 Oct India v Qualifier 2; 28 Oct England v Qualifier 2 (Ahmedabad); 29 Oct India v Australia.

Group B: 16 Oct NZ v South Africa; 17 Oct Pakistan v Qualifier 1; 20 Oct NZ v Qualifier 1; 24 Oct South Africa v Qualifier 1; 25 Oct NZ v Pakistan; 27 Oct Pakistan v South Africa. Semi-finals: 1 Nov Winner Group A v Runner-up Group B (Mohali); 2 Nov Winner Group B v Runner-up group A (Jaipur).

Final: 5 Nov (Mumbai).

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