Old enemies playing for pride before stakes rise

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The Independent Online

The 21,000 spectators shoe-horned into Edgbaston this afternoon will be grateful that the 22 players representing England and Australia are incapable of playing a meaningless match. England's five wicket victory over Bangladesh on Sunday ensured that Saturday's NatWest Series final would include these two teams, and each would be excused if they were to rest a couple of their more prominent players before Lord's.

The 21,000 spectators shoe-horned into Edgbaston this afternoon will be grateful that the 22 players representing England and Australia are incapable of playing a meaningless match. England's five wicket victory over Bangladesh on Sunday ensured that Saturday's NatWest Series final would include these two teams, and each would be excused if they were to rest a couple of their more prominent players before Lord's.

But this is highly unlikely. With the Ashes less than a month away, and momentum to be gained, there is too much at stake.

The day/night encounter today offers England another opportunity to penetrate and deflate the once impregnable aura that surrounds the Australians. But it also gives the ever improving tourists the chance to put a confident England team back in their place.

England must decide whether Michael Vaughan is fit enough to play. The England captain was put through a lengthy training session yesterday afternoon and he is desperate to lead his side. "The groin didn't feel too bad and I am pretty hopeful," Vaughan said.

"It is a big game for the team. We played South Africa here in a similar situation two years ago and we gave them a good beating. We took the confidence gained from that match into the final where we beat them nicely. I believe tomorrow could have a similar effect."

Should Vaughan suffer no reaction to his fitness test he will regain his place at number three. But he suggested that England may make changes to their batting order. Kevin Pietersen has batted at six in each of England's NatWest Series matches, and Vaughan hinted that the one-day star could be pushed up to four or five. This would mean dropping Paul Collingwood, and an out-of-form Andrew Flintoff, down the order.

But, disturbingly, England's batting is not the only area where they appear to be constantly tinkering. In five NatWest Series matches this summer they have used four different opening bowling combinations.

All this chopping and changing suggests that Vaughan and Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, are still unsure of what their best opening bowling partnership is. Darren Gough has bowled admirably in his last 10 limited-over games for England. His economy rate is excellent and his experience is still needed, but in these matches he has only taken three wickets with the new ball.

For the fielding side limited-over cricket is all about restricting runs, and a game can be won without taking a wicket. But the best way of keeping the batting side under control is by taking early wickets.

Jon Lewis, Chris Tremlett and Simon Jones have taken it in turns to bowl at the other end to Gough, but Stephen Harmison is England's top wicket taker in the tournament with 10. Yet England seem reluctant to entrust their spearhead with the new ball. This is partly due to the fact that he can be wayward, but it is also tactical. England want a bowler who can take wickets bowling in the middle of the innings.

Harmison highlighted this at Bristol when he took 5 for 33 against Australia. But there will be times when the opening batsman will be settled when he comes on to bowl and his introduction has little impact. In Flintoff England have a bowler who can keep it tight and take wickets in the middle of the innings, and it is time for Vaughan to give Harmison the new ball.

England (probable): M P Vaughan, M E Trescothick, A J Strauss, V Solanki, A Flintoff, P D Collingwood, K P Pietersen, G O Jones, A F Giles, S J Harmison, D Gough.

Australia (probable): R T Ponting, M L Hayden, A C Gilchrist, D R Martyn, A Symonds, M E K Hussey, S R Watson, G B Hogg, B Lee, J N Gillespie, G D McGrath.

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