Forget Ashes and refocus, urges Flintoff

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The Independent Online

Edgbaston hosted one of the most exciting Tests ever played last summer when, under a baking hot sun and with a fervent crowd roaring them on, England beat Australia by two runs. The contrast between that unforgettable Sunday morning and yesterday, as Steve Rouse, the Warwickshire groundsman, tried to dry out a saturated outfield before the second Test against Sri Lanka, could not have been starker.

Yet there is one constant between the build-up to that Test and now - England are in desperate need of a win. They have won only two of the 10 Tests they have played since leaving Birmingham with sore heads nine months ago. The Ashes were subsequently regained, and England's status as the second best team in the world confirmed, but life since has not been particularly kind to Michael Vaughan and his side.

Injuries continue to deprive England of four of their leading players and the side selected this morning will contain only six members of last summer's victorious squad. It, therefore, came as no surprise to hear Andrew Flintoff, England's stand-in captain, state that he had had enough of what took place last year, and that he wanted his side to focus on the present.

"What happened last year was fantastic," Flintoff said. "But it was a year ago and I don't want to keep dwelling on the Ashes. We have a Test to play against Sri Lanka, and we saw last week that they are a talented, fighting side. We can't turn up thinking about former glories. We need to concentrate on the job in hand.

"There have been a few changes to the side but the lads who have come in have performed well. We played some good cricket last week and a couple of mistakes cost us, but now we have to start winning some Tests."

England were understandably given time off after the drawn first Test, but the recent inclement weather cannot have helped their preparations. England's practice over the last two days has been limited to an indoor school, a completely different experience to practising outside, and when they walk on to the field today it will be the first time in 10 days that some of them have played on grass.

Flintoff has been pretty active during his break, starting the Great Manchester Run, visiting Ludlow Racecourse, watching Amir Khan win in Belfast, playing in an Ashley Giles golf day in Birmingham and attending Posh and Becks' World Cup do.

On Tuesday his attention returned to cricket and in the evening he went out for a meal with his close friend Muttiah Muralitharan. The pair frequented a Chinese restaurant so that Murali could eat his favourite dish, crispy duck. Flintoff would have been wary of eating duck so close to a Test, especially if he has heard the tale about Wayne Larkins' dalliance with the bird.

The former England batsman chose to eat duck on the eve of the 1989-90 Barbados Test. "I don't believe in all that bollocks," was the gist of his reply when a team-mate queried his choice of food. Larkins bagged a pair in the match.

Flintoff denied that his off-field activities would affect his performance. "I am a cricketer and I enjoy cricket," he said. "After my family it is probably the most important thing in my life. I am not going to lose direction. Things off the field come around by performing on it, so if that stops there will be nothing there."

Over dinner Flintoff will have enjoyed telling Muralitharan about the distance from the middle to the boundary at Edgbaston. The rope is foolishly brought in even when a Test is being played in the centre of the ground. But after covers put over the Test wickets to protect them while a firework display took place over the winter affected the growth of grass, this game will be played on a strip 10 yards closer to the Eric Hollies side of the ground. The 55 to 60-yard boundary will offer Muralitharan no protection against Flintoff, Kevin Pietersen and Marcus Trescothick, who averages 80 here. England fans will not give a stuff, but this attitude is one of the key reasons why spin bowling is in decline. More sixes - 16 were struck here last year - do not mean better cricket, so put the boundaries back and give spinners a chance.

After a week of rain the pitch will have little pace or bounce but there may be some lateral movement. England will name their side prior to the toss but they are expected to field the same XI as at Lord's. Sri Lanka have made one change and will consider another. Michael Vandort has replaced Jehan Mubarak at the top of the order and Lasith Malinga, a small, slingy fast bowler, may play ahead of Nuwan Kulasekara, the all-rounder whose 64 helped save the match at Lord's.

England (from): A Flintoff (c), M E Trescothick, A J Strauss, A N Cook, K P Pietersen, P D Collingwood, G O Jones, L E Plunkett, M J Hoggard, S I Mahmood, M S Panesar, J Lewis.

Sri Lanka (from): D P M D Jayawardene (c), M G Vandort, W U Tharanga, K C Sangakkara, T T Sameraweera, T M Dilshan, C K Kapugedera, M F Maharoof, W P U C J Vaas, K M D N Kulasekara, M Muralitharan, L Malinga.