In case the dramatic Ashes series was beginning to look too routine, Andy Flower injected a little spice into it yesterday. England's team director rejected totally the assertion that his side had been guilty of gamesmanship – if not cheating – as the opening Test reached its spellbinding climax in Cardiff on Sunday by seeking to waste time.
"I am a little surprised at all the hullabaloo over it, to be honest," he said yesterday in his first public reaction to England's fortuitous draw in a match that Australia had dominated. "From my own perspective, in that last hour of the game, there was no time-wasting by us. Have a look at the footage yourself. Never did we consciously try to waste time."
It was clear that Flower was upset by the allegations of Ricky Ponting, Australia's captain, who said in the immediate aftermath that England's behaviour in twice sending on their 12th man in the closing stages, was "pretty ordinary". Ponting also suggested that the issue should be taken up with the England hierarchy.
"He has got his own opinion, and I respect his opinion," Flower said. "He is a very good cricketer and has been a very good ambassador for Australia. But in this instance, I think he has made a meal of it." The England team director is not a man given to outbursts or wild statements but he needed hardly any prompting to respond.
Perhaps he was anxious to set the record straight, perhaps he was playing Australia at an old game, but he also intimated that Ponting was making far too much of it and deflecting attention from what really mattered – England's great escape and Australia's failure to take the wicket they needed to go ahead in the series.
England might seem to have enough concerns ahead of the second Test, which starts at Lord's tomorrow with injury doubts still persisting about Andrew Flintoff. There was more optimism about his place in the team yesterday and the surgeon who operated on his knee has reported that he sees no reason why Flintoff should not play tomorrow.
But this much-awaited series would not be complete without some discord between the sides – few Ashes contests are – and this time it has come early. Flower seemed perplexed by the attention that has been given to England's decision to send on the 12th man, Bilal Shafayat, in successive overs, the second time accompanied by the team physiotherapist, Steve McCaig.
At the time England's last pair, Jimmy Anderson and Monty Panesar, were at the crease fighting desperately to save the game. It was noticeable, however, that they were not doing what any other batsmen would have done in their position, using up as much time as possible by talking between overs and prodding the pitch extensively between balls. Australia, meanwhile, were rushing between overs and thus trying to hurry the batsmen.
Flower said: "Most teams in those situations, you have batsmen talking in the middle for extended periods, knocking down the pitch, changing gloves, getting drinks, which all waste time. At no stage in the last couple of hours did we do that.
"The second point, was that there was perceived confusion out in the middle about what time the game was going to end. We needed to get messages out to them to make sure they were clear. We have not got walkie-talkies to those guys, and the only way to communicate is to send people out. We did that, right at the end."
England had plenty of experience of tight finishes in the Caribbean last winter. Twice they were denied victory in the closing stages of Test matches when the batsmen were not exactly rushing to face deliveries and, in a one-day match in Guyana, England won after a misinterpretation of the regulations by the opposition. It was the latter that England claim to have been avoiding on Sunday evening.
The row, which has probably been given greater coverage and provoked more sanctimonious observations than even Ponting intended, was given additional legs yesterday by England's former coach, Duncan Fletcher. He said in his newspaper column that the incident would not have happened during his tenure, but if any side in the world did not play in the spirit of the game it was Ponting's Australians.
Flower said: "Do not nail the England side. There was a slight incident at the end of the game, but in the main it was played in good spirit. Some of the incidents you have mentioned are things which happen in cricket."
He was also able to point out that England have twice won the ICC fair play award, an achievement that has eluded Australia even once. "Let's keep it in perspective and not deflect attention from what was a very good rearguard action. That was a good battle out there, and the sort of attention which has been paid to this, I do not like it."
If Flower's claim that the position about overs and time remaining needed to be clarified, Ponting's allegations may come to haunt him if he wishes to continue to invoke the spirit of cricket. His dash towards the umpire after claiming a catch at silly point off England's hero Paul Collingwood did not seem greatly in keeping with the game's spirit. Since Collingwood was clearly not out, the action seemed further removed.
England will decide today whether Flintoff is fit to play and whether they must change the balance of the side. The workload that Graham Onions was undertaking in the Lord's outfield until late into the afternoon yesterday suggested that he may be pencilled in for a place, whether England play five bowlers or four.
Flower's most important job before tomorrow may be to ensure his charges are not as lacking in nerve and application as they were so palpably in Cardiff.
"But part of your job is to deal with nerves, all sorts of skills are needed as an international cricketer, and that is a big one of them," he said. "It is good to have that experience for our boys, and they will be better for it going into the second Test." If not England will be in deep trouble.
Balls Monty Panesar and James Anderson survived to save the first Ashes test last week.