Lionheart Flintoff desperate to let his feats do the talking

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The Independent Online

In his last public speech before the talking stopped, Andrew Flintoff said everything and nothing. The thought occurred that he might need to be more rousing when he delivers his final declamation to the men he will lead in the Ashes series, which at long, long last starts here tomorrow.

But when Flintoff was appointed captain for this campaign it was always known that any poetry that existed would be found in his deeds and actions and not his words or strategy. "I will speak to the team tomorrow morning but what I say will remain between me and the lads," he said. "I don't say the same thing every time I speak to them, but I don't look for quotations in books, I speak from the heart."

There has been an extraordinary sense of anticipation surrounding this series. It began on 12 September last year at the moment when England regained the Ashes after a gap of eight series spanning 16 years and 142 days and it has never ceased. Everything that England and Australia have done since has been geared towards the proceedings which start at the Gabba, the quickest pitch in Australia.

The players of both sides will tell you they have been involved in some sterling matches in that period. So they have. England came back thrillingly in India earlier this year and were sometimes magnificent against Pakistan last summer. Australia steamrollered all before them - with 11 wins from 12 matches - as if somebody, anybody, everybody had to pay for the outrage inflicted on them in England. And they will talk of the deep respect they hold for those other opponents. But always the players and their coaches have had one eye on 23 November 2006 and the seven weeks thereafter. England want to keep hold of what it took so long to reclaim, Australia crave to have it back. It is fair to say that not much quarter will be given.

The first Test will be played on the fastest surface of the series. The pace and the bounce might not be in favour of England's batsmen but they have bowlers of their own who can instil doubt and fear. There is a feeling that England probably have to start well to stay in the series. That is not to say they have to win but that they must not be trampled on.

There have been instances of losing in Brisbane and going on to win the series, most famously 52 years ago when Len Hutton put Australia in and saw his team go down by an innings and 154 runs. Frank Tyson and Brian Statham then took the series by the scruff and England won the next three Tests and the Ashes. It is, however, difficult to envisage a repeat.

Four years ago, Nasser Hussain thought he spotted a helpful tinge of green and asked Australia to bat. Four days later it was Hussain who looked green after Australia had won by 384 runs. England never looked like coming back. The figures show that captains who have won the toss and fielded at the Gabba have won 10 and lost seven. But Flintoff might be wise to reflect on England's experiences.

The odds for match and series are vastly in favour of the home side, showing a greater disparity than when England were regularly hapless throughout the Nineties. It seems as though most observers are prepared to conclude that the peerless series of 2005 might have been magical but was a mere aberration in the great scheme of things where Australia are the best side in the world.

England do not have the team here they would have liked. Actually, the man they are likely to miss above all has arrived in town for some tests on his knee. But Michael Vaughan is weeks, perhaps months away from being ready to play and there is no point in dwelling on it, save to suggest that were he involved the odds would be much closer.

If there is a difference in ability between the sides - and there is - Australia will still be dependent for much of their welfare on the old routine, which involves an array of familiar names plus, significantly, the new boy, Mike Hussey, a prolific batsman who has taken to Test cricket at the age of 31 in a way which makes a duck seem hesitant in water.

Both sides have been disdainful of the age gap, but that is a long way from saying they have given it no thought. Only two Australia teams have been older than this one - those which started the 1926 and 1928-29 series. England won the Ashes both times. The cold truth is Australia's team is nearer the end than the beginning and that it was so long ago for some of them that not only is the start line out of sight, it may be out of memory.

They may have another big series left in them, but time is bound to tap them on the shoulder some day. There are five matches in seven weeks played at the highest intensity. Six Australians are 35 or older, only one Englishman, Ashley Giles (if he plays), will be older than 30.

It is noticeable that the Australians have attempted to undermine England's harmony by commenting on their selection, particularly with regard to the wicketkeeper and the spinner. In effect, they are saying that England are crazy if they jettison both Chris Read and Monty Panesar for Geraint Jones and Ashley Giles. Maybe, but Jones and Giles helped to win the Ashes.

The balance of the English side has been fraught with difficulty. As late as yesterday when Ian Bell was jammed on the hand in the nets and briefly made a doubt, Flintoff talked about perhaps needing to strengthen the late batting. Australia have a similar conundrum with the injury to their all-rounder Shane Watson.

Australia will probably win ultimately because of the great Warne: but England do not enter the Gabba without all hope. They have some tough cookies and they have Flintoff. He will speak from the heart to his men. Tomorrow and in the days to follow, Flintoff's heart could be England's greatest asset.

Ashes schedule and Test teams

First Test (Brisbane)

23-27 November. Play starts midnight tonight

Second Test (Adelaide)

23-27 Dec, 00.30 GMT

Third Test (Perth)

14-18 Dec, 02.30 GMT

Fourth Test (Melbourne)

26-30 Dec, 23.30 GMT (on 25)

Fifth Test (Sydney)

2-6 Jan, 23.30 GMT (on 1 Jan)

TEAMS FOR THE FIRST TEST

Australia (from): R T Ponting (capt), J L Langer, M L Hayden, D R Martyn, M E Hussey, A C Gilchrist (wkt), S K Warne, S R Clark, B Lee, G D McGrath, M J Clarke, S Tait, M G Johnson.

England (from): A Flintoff (capt), A J Strauss, A N Cook, I R Bell, P J Collingwood, K P Pietersen, G O Jones (wkt), M J Hoggard, S J Harmison, J M Anderson, M S Panesar, A F Giles, E C Joyce.

Umpires: B Bowden (NZ) and S Bucknor (WI).

So, who wins? Expert predictions

Angus Fraser

Score: 3-1 to Australia

Player of the series: Ricky Ponting

James Lawton

Score: 3-0 to Australia

Player: Ricky Ponting

Stephen Brenkley

Score: 3-2 to England

Player: Ian Bell

Alec Stewart

Former England captain, part of the BBC Five Live commentary team

Score: England to retain Ashes

Player: Ian Bell

Mike Gatting

Former England captain, part of the BBC Five Live commentary team

Score: 2-1 to England

Player: Monty Panesar

Bob Willis

Former England captain, part of Sky Sports' commentary team

Score: 2-2

Player: Monty Panesar

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