Vaughan's merry band need to strike early to enjoy last laugh

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The Independent Online

During the last 15 months, a period in which England have won 14 and lost one of the 18 Test matches they have played, fun has been one of the features of Vaughan's team. England play hard but they also play with a smile on their face. Under Vaughan's leadership players like Andrew Flintoff, Marcus Trescothick, Andrew Strauss and Stephen Harmison have been free to walk on to a cricket field and express themselves.

They have played cricket the way they want to play it, without fear of recrimination, and it has been an approach which has brought them unprecedented success. To change this now, on the eve of a contest against one of the greatest teams ever to grace this wonderful game, would be complete folly.

"We have done all our preparations and they have gone well," Vaughan said. "Everybody is fresh and excited. They will have good days, and there will be times when we feel stressed out, but we will have good days as well. But you have still got to enjoy the big occasion, enjoy playing at Lord's in front of a capacity crowd.

"Both teams have been looking forward to this game for a long time. In the last year, after every game of cricket, there has always been a question about Australia and the Ashes. Now, finally, we can get out there and play."

England's current form at Lord's is excellent - they have won five of their last six games here - but history suggests Ricky Ponting's side will leave London next week with a 1-0 lead in the five Test series. Australia have defeated England here on four of their last five visits, and it is 71 years since they lost a Test match at the home of cricket.

The statistic is of no concern to Vaughan. "Duncan Fletcher was the only one of us alive when England last beat Australia here," he said jokingly. Fletcher in fact is only 56. "So what has it got to do with my team. History. If you look too far back or too far forward you miss the crucial moment, and that is the game which is about to start."

This match offers England their best chance of beating the tourists while the series is alive. The form of the Australians improved during the one-day series, and it should only get better during the coming weeks. But they are yet to reach their best. Consistency has allowed Australia to dominate the game for more than a decade, but their cricket in the last month does not yet have that familiar relentless quality.

If England are to challenge they need to hit the visitors hard early. Should the current wave of hot weather continue the captain who wins the toss will bat, and if England do this they need to bat for the best part of two days. If Vaughan's troops find themselves in the field, they need to strike with the new ball.

Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer have scored 41 Test centuries between them, and when they reach three figures they do not throw their wicket away. On 11 occasions the left-handers have gone on to post totals in excess of 150. Ponting and Damien Martyn are vulnerable early on against a hard, bouncy new ball but when it gets old and soft they are ruthless.

The biggest contrast between the two teams is age. England, as Vaughan keeps telling us, are a young side with a bright future. Australia, in the words of the England fast bowler, Matthew Hoggard, are past it. Vaughan laughed at Hoggard's comments but you could tell he did not really appreciate his team-mate tempting fate.

They also brought a smile to Ponting's face. "It was interesting to see who made the comments," Ponting said. "I don't think you will find many of England's batsmen saying that because they have to get out there and walk the walk, rather than talk the talk.

"These players know their age but they also know their ability and their skill. If they weren't doing a job they wouldn't be here and they are currently doing it as well as they have ever done. I admit that we have a few players who are coming towards the end of their careers, but if they weren't playing great cricket they would not be here in the first place.

"Warney, wicket-wise, had his most successful year ever last year and McGrath has been first-class since he came back from his ankle injury. They know that this could well be their last Ashes trip to England and it should make them even keener to perform."

Ponting was also asked about England's middle order, which will see Ian Bell, Kevin Pietersen, Flintoff and Geraint Jones, four players who are yet to play a Test match against Australia, coming in at four, five, six and seven.

"It could be a weakness," Ponting said. "Pietersen, Flintoff and Jones are aggressive players who can change games, but they can be vulnerable early on. If we happen to take early wickets I think we will be able to make some serious inroads. If we play as well as we can, we can win 5-0, but you have to play well for a long period for that to happen."

England have omitted Chris Tremlett from their 12-man squad and Australia will wait until this morning before naming their starting XI. Jason Gillespie has had a sore knee and Australia will see how he reacted to yesterday's fitness test.

England: M P Vaughan (Yorkshire, capt), M E Trescothick (Somerset), A J Strauss (Middlesex), I R Bell (Warwickshire), K P Pietersen (Hampshire), A Flintoff (Lancashire), G O Jones (Kent, wkt), A F Giles (Warwickshire), S P Jones (Glamorgan), M J Hoggard (Yorkshire), S J Harmison (Durham).

Australia: (from): R T Ponting (capt), M L Hayden, J L Langer, D R Martyn, M J Clarke, S M Katich, A C Gilchrist (wkt), S K Warne, B Lee, J N Gillespie, G D McGrath, M S Kasprowicz.

Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pak), R E Koertzen (SA)

Perfect storms: Three key fronts in the battle for the Ashes

Stephen Harmison v Matthew Hayden

Expect fireworks when these two come together. Harmison is England's spearhead and Hayden is one of the most destructive batsmen in the game. Hayden likes to intimidate bowlers with his size and strokeplay but Harmison is quick enough and good enough to command the Australian's respect. Hayden will look to dominate and set the tone for the rest of the series. Is Harmison up to it?

Marcus Trescothick V Glenn McGrath

McGrath's success is based on control and attrition. Trescothick likes to play his shots. The England opener does not enjoy facing the Australian because he gives him nothing to hit and he has exposed flaws in his technique outside off-stump. Trescothick has performed against the other top sides but until he scores heavily against Australia there remain doubts.

Kevin Pietersen v Shane Warne

Warne's positive comments about his Hampshire team-mate will have done Pietersen's chances of playing no harm at all. Despite being mates the pair will have been looking for flaws in each other's game early in the season. Pietersen is supremely confident, but Warne is not lacking in this department and rightly so with 583 Test wickets to his name. We will see who has been bluffing when they meet.