England flaws too deep for Ashes glory

<img border='0' align='left' title=' ' src='http://www.ndtv.com/convergence/images/thumbnail/ver1/a/ashes2009.jpg' class='caption'> In this Ashes series of dampened expectations, the likeliest outcome is this: England wilts under the pressure and Australia triumphs, yet again.

Updated: August 19, 2009 12:41 IST
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In other circumstances, these would be ingredients for a fabulous story: Ancient rivals, locked in a winner-takes-all final match, with their sport's most famous trophy awaiting the victor.

But let's be realistic. In this Ashes series of dampened expectations, the likeliest outcome is this: England wilts under the pressure and Australia triumphs, yet again.

Of course, there's always the Andrew Flintoff factor.

If anyone is capable of tearing up the standard 'Aussies retain Ashes' script, it's him.

Even with his injured right knee held together with jabs, and compression and ice treatment from a contraption based on NASA spacesuit technology, the all-rounder's return to the lineup will stiffen England's spine just when it needs it most.

This is Flintoff's 79th and last Test. Expect the gritty competitor to give it his all at The Oval in south London starting Thursday. Snatching victory when defeat or a draw _ which for England would amount to the same thing _ seem foretold would seal his status as a national hero and be followed, undoubtedly, by more YouTube videos of woozy Flintoff celebrations.

But, again, let's get real.

Even Flintoff's towering presence and aggression can't mask the England flaws that Australia exposed so surgically in the fourth Test at Headingley.

Before that trouncing, England had looked like the potential series winner and Australia a mere shadow of its dominant former self.

Two English batting collapses and aimless bowling blew those illusions away. England's Ashes-winning pretensions, like a movie set, suddenly appeared to be nothing more than make-believe, all plywood and glue, not the real thing.

More of a surrender than a mere defeat, the manner of England's capitulation bodes ill for The Oval. In Leeds, only Stuart Broad and off-spinner Graeme Swann showed any kind of heartbeat with the bat in their ultimately doomed eighth-wicket stand when the writing was already smeared on the wall in the second innings. England's middle order simply went AWOL.

The bright side, English optimists would say, is that England can't get any worse. But, then again, the pressure will be tenfold in the deciding Test and, at this point, the biggest questions are not over English technique, but the strength of English minds.

One of the silliest things that's been said in this five-match series came from Andrew Strauss. Clearly, competing effectively against the Australians is not, as the England captain said, like "playing against any other team," although Strauss was right to point out that this Aussie squad doesn't _ at least not yet _ have the indomitable aura that Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Matthew Hayden and their like provided before they retired.

Some of the most prescient comments, on the other hand, came from former Australian opener Justin Langer, in briefing notes he prepared for Australia ahead of the series and which subsequently leaked to the British press.

"English players rarely believe in themselves," Langer reportedly wrote. "Aggressive batting, running and body language will soon have them staring at their bootlaces rather than in the eyes of their opponent _ it is just how they are built."


Culling Ravi Bopara from The Oval lineup was wise. With just 105 runs in seven innings, he was the weakest link in the frail England batting order.

Smart, too, was resisting appeals for a recall of Mark Ramprakash. Falling back on a 39-year-old who hasn't played a Test in seven years would have been a sign of panic and sent a deeper, more worrying, message that English cricket isn't producing Test-ready youngsters in sufficient numbers.

Instead, Jonathan Trott is being thrown in at the deep end, a risky choice with negatives for England regardless of The Oval outcome.

Should the 28-year-old crumble on his Test debut, critics will rightly complain that England should have been better prepared. And should he triumph? Well, again, Trott's South African roots will point to the shortage of homegrown talent on English shores.

Of course, England would delight in proving the doomsters wrong.

Australia's failure to secure a win in the first Test, when England were down but held on for a draw, proved that its attack isn't as sharp as in years past. And they proved beatable when Strauss, with the bat, and Flintoff, with ball, are firing, as they did in England's win in the second Test.

But that was before Leeds. Although the fifth Test has the makings on paper of a gripping decider, with the two sides locked on one win apiece, momentum is firmly with Australia.

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