Flintoff returns to light up the winter with Ashes on his mind

For Andrew Flintoff and England, the big winter, maybe the biggest winter of all, starts tomorrow. It might become more intense, there might be matches with more riding on the result but the nature of all that stretches ahead will become immediately clear at the Sawai Man Singh Stadium here.

As a curtain-raiser to six months of toil and travel in four tournaments on three continents, a contest against India, in the first group game of the Champions Trophy, is exactly what the captain and his team require. This is no soft touch. Playing the hosts, led by Rahul Dravid with Sachin Tendulkar back at last from long-term injury, and in a place that has not yet had the opportunity to become bored with the travelling one-day circus passing by, will at once concentrate minds and bodies.

The stadium will be packed to its rafters, the roads around will be teeming before, during and after. Inside and, with a slight time delay, outside, the roar will be more or less continuous. The fans are passionate about their team, of course, but they have come to adore Flintoff.

It is the first match of the competition proper - the insipid qualifying stages being at last completed today - and the winner will straightaway have considerably shortened their odds of qualification for the semi-final. Australia and the second-placed qualifier, either Sri Lanka or West Indies, make up the group. Two go through to the semi-finals.

The temptation for England and their followers will be to view the stay in the subcontinent, no matter how brief or how long, as a mere warm-up for the Ashes and the World Cup which follow. The England coach, Duncan Fletcher, was at pains to disabuse people of that notion yesterday.

He said: "These are proud guys and playing for your country in any tournament is a huge moment. Winning [the Champions Trophy] would be tremendous. Of course, a repeat of the Ashes would be a major achievement, but as long as it's not interpreted that that's all we care about. There's a lot of cricket and it's big for everyone right through to the World Cup."

It is the sort of occasion where coaches earn their money. Naturally, England would like to win the Champions Trophy, the final of which they reached at home in 2004. But given the choice between taking that home and retaining the Ashes, there would not be a single Englishman (or Australian) who would choose the Champions Trophy without expecting either serious doubts to be cast on their capacity for rational judgement, or the immediate offer of a job with a six-figure salary by the International Cricket Council, whose tournament it is.

Yet it can help to provide the tone for what is to come. Fletcher and Flintoff know it. There is no escaping the fact that England have been pretty hopeless at one-day cricket and pretty smart at Test cricket these past two years. But a bad tournament now (and not least a bad match against Australia in the same stadium next Saturday) would be difficult to shake off.

The return of Flintoff to the side means everything to their prospects. The fact that he made 59 from 53 balls in the warm-up match two days ago increased the feelgood factor that always seems to be prevalent when he is around.

There is no question of his bowling tomorrow and it is improbable that he will bowl in the group matches at all. His ankle, from which scar tissue was removed in summer and has kept him out since June, is holding up well but the aim is to have him fit and fast in the first Test against the Australians at Brisbane on 23 November, not risking unnecessary further damage in Jaipur in the next week.

There is a relaxed feeling in the camp. At the start of tours, short or long, that is invariably the case, but Flintoff has such an easy-going demeanour that there is reason to suppose that it will endure.

That will be tested repeatedly in the months to follow. For now he and Fletcher have to decide on a one-day side that will be at least competitive. It may contain both spinners in the party, Michael Yardy and Jamie Dalrymple. The memory of coming back from 2-0 down at home against Pakistan to level the series at 2-2 (and that after being hammered 5-0 by the Sri Lankans) will serve them well, although that was achieved under the other Andrew, Strauss.

The probability is that Flintoff will bat high up the order tomorrow, only the 10th ODI here in 23 years, perhaps opening the innings, but more likely at three. England are anxious to take maximum advantage of early fielding restrictions on the slow pitches they will face in India.

"It's crucial that you try and use the first 10 overs effectively," said Fletcher.

"Then, if they bring in the power play up to 15 or 20 [overs], you've got to have somebody who is capable of hitting it over the top and [of utilising] the restrictions."

Bluntly, England have been lamentable at power plays - which can be taken in two chunks of five overs after the first 10 overs - and which mean that all but two fielders still have to be inside the 30-yard circle.

Flintoff may help to provide a solution but England are not adept enough yet to make the batting order a moveable feast. There is another difficulty. "We have to think long term and short term and there isn't really any easy decision," said Fletcher. "It might change depending on how he feels as a bowler."

Game on: England's fixtures

* CHAMPIONS TROPHY Tomorrow: v India (Jaipur, pool match)

Next Saturday: v Australia (Jaipur, pool match)

28 October: v Sri Lanka or West Indies (Ahmedabad, pool match)

1 or 2 November: Semi-final

5 November: Final

* THE ASHES

10 November: v Prime Minister's XI (Canberra)

12-14 November: v New South Wales (Sydney)

17-19 November: v South Australia (Adelaide)

23-27 November: 1st Test v Australia (Brisbane)

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