Nine And A Half Weeks

I haven't been around much over the last couple of weeks - work and rugby trips to Gloucester, Cornwall and up the sunlit Exe Valley to Tiverton have seen to that. Having dissected Gloucester's Heineken Cup defeat against Agen over a post-match beer at Kingsholm with my Welsh mate Alan, our thoughts turned to the Ashes series. We were both fairly pessimistic (this was before we'd heard that England had managed to beat the West Indies in the dreaded Champions Trophy but somehow I don't think that knowledge would have altered our views all that much) and the eventual consensus of the ideas, issues and theories which we tried to get our heads round as the wind picked up and the gloom descended was that England could win the series and retain the Ashes, but that it would depend on various pieces of a large and currently very messy jigsaw falling into place.

Where does the average England fan's mind go to when thinking about the Ashes? Unless you're trying very hard it goes straight back to the late summer of 2005, that's where. And the single most important factor in England's win was the outstanding form of Andrew Flintoff. Sure, there were valuable contributions at one stage or another from a wide range of players, some of whom weren't even on the plane which has just landed in Australia (Michael Vaughan, Simon Jones), but Flintoff, with his prodigious ability and guileless charisma, was always at the heart of things.

Which is why, as Brisbane beckons, England need, more than anything else, Flintoff to prove his fitness to bowl long and penetrative spells and produce innings that feature the type of boisterous power which is second nature to him, while also displaying a degree of rationality in shot selection which has often seemed entirely foreign.

In India the signs weren't hopeful. He didn't bowl much and made few runs, looking for all the world like someone who hadn't played properly for several months (which he was). And now he has just two warm-up matches in which to rediscover some semblance of the form which made him everyone's favourite cricketer just over a year ago.

Of course, other players also need to 'step up to the plate' (as Duncan Fletcher might say). Harmison needs to quickly re-discover the reverberating hostility and pace which made him the world's leading bowler in 2004, England's batting tyros, Ian Bell (the new - and very welcome - ICC Emerging Player of the Year) and Alastair Cook, need to find their feet immediately against Warne and the rest, Marcus has to start batting as we know he can at the top of the order, Monty has to drop it on his usual length and find his usual turn and whichever wicket-keeper survives the selection process (and I'm convinced it will again be Jones) has to hold everything and make some runs as well.

If most of this happens then England will have a decent chance of retaining the urn, even against an Australian team with home advantage and which will be more strongly motivated than ever before.
If some or none of it happens England are in trouble. The signs aren't great, and my current feeling is that England are going to be in trouble.

As somebody once said, though, 'a week is a long time in politics'. The only problem here is that we're talking about cricket, but experience has taught me that nine and a half weeks (as somebody once called a film) is a long time in cricket.

See you at the SCG in early January. It's going to be an interesting ride.

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