England's cunning Ashes plan, it was suggested by their squad announcements on Monday, is to bamboozle Australia with spin at one end while Andrew Flintoff bottles them up at the other. Yesterday Adam Gilchrist, one of the legends whose departure from the Australian team has given England fresh hope, identified a serious flaw in this approach.
Preparing turning tracks, he suggested, was a smart move. Australia, who begin their Ashes tour against Sussex at Hove today, struggle at the crease against spin, and their bowling attack is yet to fill the yawning void left by Shane Warne's retirement. However, Gilchrist felt it was extremely optimistic to put such faith in Flintoff's ravaged body.
"Flintoff to this day is still carrying the effects of the 2005 series," said Gilchrist in reference to the halcyon summer in which England last won the Ashes. "It looks as if he has never really been able to get in his full stride again. It's not a mental thing. I don't think he's one that is all that fazed by expectation and the like, it's physical, his injuries.
"He's not been able to get in his full stride consistently since because of injuries. Having him fit and firing is a big part of England's chances," Gilchrist added. "Every team is reliant on its big players. If [Glenn] McGrath and Warne went missing for us we came back to the field. Now we rely on Ricky Ponting. When he scores a hundred Australia are in a very good position because he scores at good pace. Australia will be relying on Ricky and Mitchell Johnson, for England [Kevin] Pietersen and Flintoff are the big- ticket items."
Gilchrist is one of those few players who changed the nature of Test cricket. For a wicketkeeper-batsman to score 5,570 runs at an average of 47.60 is impressive enough; to score at 82 runs per hundred balls was phenomenal. In 2005 Flintoff had his measure. Gilchrist averaged less than 23 and Flintoff took his wicket four times in nine innings.
"He is so awkward to face as a left-hander," Gilchrist said (four of Australia's likely top six this summer are left-handed bats). "It's his physicality, his angle of attack, his height. I admire his controlled aggression. He's in your face but not recklessly so. He creates an aura of control, even if you get a good shot away he has that look in his eye, and a demeanour, that suggests it is all part of a big plan. Warne and McGrath – they had the same quality. When I have faced Flintoff since he can still get his weaponry to that level. It's just he's not been able to do it consistently."
At least Flintoff should play some part in the series. Warne will be watching from the commentary box. "[Replacing Warne] has been the team's greatest difficulty and it was always going to be the case," Gilchrist said. So much so the prospect of Australia relying on batsmen who bowl some spin has been raised but Gilchrist said: "I think they will need a full-time spin bowler. Nathan Hauritz is here and I hope they give him the opportunity." Gilchrist is asked whether he is the best. There is a long pause, then he replies: "I thought Bryce McGain was going to be the one prior to the last Test in South Africa but it was not that great." McGain went for eight an over in 18 wicketless overs.
"He lost confidence and the selectors lost confidence in him." South Africa's Paul Harris took 9 for 161 in that Test and Gilchrist admitted: "Spinners have been pretty effective against Australia for a long while, really, so it will be interesting if England focus their attack on the turning ball when four years ago it was the swinging ball which demolished us."
Nevertheless, Gilchrist is optimistic following Australia's 2-1 series win in South Africa. "That group really surprised me and I'm very much encouraged. I'm also encouraged listening to Ricky. His enthusiasm is exceptional. In the past he's been criticised for not moulding a team. Well, he's neither needed, nor had the chance, to do it before. He has the chance to develop this group and I think he is really excited by it. He wants to leave that legacy of formulating a team out of this fresh start."
Gilchrist will deliver the ninth MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture at Lord's this evening. He intends to speak not on batsmen walking, for which he is noted but which he does not consider a major issue, but on the place of Twenty20. Though he retired from international cricket last year, he led the Deccan Chargers to IPL success last month. He said: "Twenty20 is here, it is dangerous to ignore it. We have to look at how cricket can use it."
Adam Gilchrist was speaking to promote Sky Sports' exclusively live and high definition coverage of the Ashes
14 days to go:
The Aussies were bemused at the omission of Michael Vaughan. "It is a shame he will not be playing," Brett Lee said. "He seems to get runs when it matters most."