England sputters as Ashes nears

Already the demand for Ashes tickets is dropping away and that is why the defeat at TRENT BRIDGE, the scene of Ashes glory only 10 months ago, will do England cricket so much harm, writes TED CORBETT.

England have gone nine home series without defeat, they lie second to Australia in the world rankings and slowly, oh so slowly, their wounded are heading back to the Test match trenches.

So why so much fuss about defeat at Trent Bridge against one of the greatest bowlers in history?

Because of the Ashes series now less than six months away?

Because of doubts about the future of Michael Vaughan, the captain still making a laborious return through county cricket?

Because of the poor form of the batsmen, except Kevin Pietersen, because the bowlers have allowed the tail to wag so vigorously, because of the unresolved concerns about the wicketkeeping?

No. The real worry is that while Vaughan is away and Andrew Flintoff is captain we are cutting short the career of the man who will give the Australians the jitters whether he is holding the ball, flourishing his bat or simply standing at second slip with his hands on his knees.

England cannot afford to be without Flintoff when the first Test of the Ashes series begins in Brisbane on November 9. If England lose their status as the holders of the Ashes more damage will be done to cricket in England than at any time in the last 130 years. We saw why at Trent Bridge on the final morning of the third Test.

Their bowlers had scattered Sri Lankan first innings wickets on a pitch which had a lot of moisture that had been artificially removed in the last few days of its preparation after too much rain in the previous fortnight. You could tell just how much rain by the lush green outfield. The pitch was the colour of sand.

England's bowlers had allowed the last three wickets to add 102 runs to give the total of 231 respectability and been unable to stop a stand of 62 between Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan for the last wicket.

How bad is that?

One of the reasons for the failure to deal with the tail was that Flintoff had bowled a 10-over spell, split by lunch. We did not know it at the time but it must have been in those 10 overs that his ankle began to give him pain and he bowled only three more overs in the innings.

He send down only 13 overs in the second innings and by the fourth day he had already decided not to bowl any more in this match and to take himself off to a specialist as soon as he could get back home. A scan showed three pieces of bone floating around in the left ankle, which had needed an operation two years ago.

I am ready to beat a favourite drum about fitness. Flintoff is a product of the gym, made fit by the treadmill, the weights and all the other paraphernalia that goes with those ghastly indoor schools of muscle production.

Compare his fitness to injury ratio with Matthew Hoggard who does his training running with his dogs on the moors. That is a more natural way to get fit; the way that I learned in the days before every family had a car to take their children to school.

Like most of my generation I walked or cycled to school and although I am not about to tune my body to Olympic standard I - like many more to my age - still manage to keep in trim by walking.

If only the modern cricketer had a background that meant he had to make his own way to school or to his sports club in the evening or even to the local dance hall. "Walking my baby back home," in the words of the song by Johnny Ray was not just a way to get to know a girl better.

It was also a fitness aid, although I confess I did not think so at the time.

Still, overtaking 231 should not have required any great effort, the pitch was well behaved and after all we had Pietersen, five Test centuries to the good already, three of those in successive home Tests.

Somehow England contrived to make only 229 for all Pietersen's flurry of blows, for all Paul Collingwood's almost four hours of self denial, despite 20 from Jon Lewis, 30, and playing in his first Test.

The Sri Lankans are not greatly experienced in the top order batting but on this occasion someone — Tom Moody, the coach, is the obvious suspect — laid down exactly what was needed. No need for big shots, wait for the runs to come and by the time the fourth innings comes around we may need every run we can get.

So they grafted. Kumar Sangakkara 134 balls for 66, young Chamara Kapugedera three hours over 50, the captain Mahela Jayawardene almost briskly with 45 off 84 deliveries and finally another 34 from Vaas and 22 from the most extraordinary pace bowler of the modern era Lasith Malinga.

Vaas's 72 runs without being out in this match enabled him to finish the series with an average of 98 to compensate for his five wickets for 264 which is hardly what you expect from a bowler with 300 Test victims behind him.

By the time Sri Lanka were all out, leaving England to score 325 in nearly two days the result was the biggest certainty in history. Only once in a blue moon does a side make such a score.

England have not done so since 1928 when they made 332 in Melbourne, their biggest score to win.

Mark Butcher guided England to a similar victory at Headingley in 2003 but although the Leeds pitch appeared to take all the sting out of Shane Warne's bowling and Adam Gilchrist, the stand-in captain, was a touch generous with his declaration, it was still a remarkable win.

The new cricket lover knows nothing of such matters. He thought that England, from what happened during the Ashes series, would succeed.

I got to the bookmakers to find that England were even money when Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss were still together at lunch and shortly afterwards they were odds-on favourites.

I know one professional gambler who backed England repeatedly throughout the match but most of those short odds were the result of tiny bets from lads in the crowd convinced that England are now the greatest and that whatever target they are set will be within their grasp.

The disappointment that will result when it becomes clear that England - without Flintoff, Vaughan and the rest - are vulnerable could result in a huge downturn in their popularity.

Already the demand for Ashes tickets is dropping away, airplane seats to Australia can be had more readily and expectations that England had only to turn up in Brisbane, Sydney, Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne to beat a side of ageing Aussie cricketers have fallen through the floor.

That is why the defeat at Trent Bridge, the scene of Ashes glory only 10 months ago, will do England cricket so much harm.

THE SCORES

Third Test, England v Sri Lanka, Trent Bridge, Nottingham, June 2-5, 2006. Sri Lanka won by 134 runs.

Sri Lanka — 1st innings: M. Vandort b Lewis 1; U. Tharanga c Jones b Hoggard 34; K. Sangakkara c Jones b Flintoff 36; M. Jayawardene c Jones b Flintoff 0; T. Dilshan c Flintoff b Lewis 8; S. Jayasuriya c Pietersen b Flintoff 4; C. Kapugedera c Strauss b Plunkett 14; F. Maharoof c Flintoff b Hoggard 13; C. Vaas (not out) 38; L. Malinga c Pietersen b Lewis 21; M. Muralitharan c Flintoff b Plunkett 33; Extras (b-4, lb-3, w-2, nb-20) 29. Total: 231.

Fall of wkts: 1-2, 2-84, 3-85, 4-86, 5-97, 6-105, 7-129, 8-139, 9-169.

England bowling: Hoggard 17-3-65-2; Lewis 21-3-68-3; Plunkett 8.2-1-36-2; Flintoff 15-2-52-3; Panesar 5-3-3-0.

England — 1st innings: M. Trescothick (run out) 24; A. Strauss b Vaas 7; A. Cook b Malinga 24; K. Pietersen c Jayawardene b Muralitharan 41; P. Collingwood lbw b Vaas 48; A. Flintoff c Jayawardene b Jayasuriya 1; G. Jones st. Sangakkara b Muralitharan 19; L. Plunkett b Jayasuriya 9; M. Hoggard c Jayawardene b Muralitharan 10; J. Lewis c Dilshan b Malinga 20; M. Panesar (not out) 0; Extras (b-2, lb-13, w-3, nb-8) 26. Total: 229.

Fall of wkts: 1-25, 2-39, 3-73, 4-117, 5-118, 6-151, 7-184, 8-196, 9-229.

Sri Lanka bowling: Vaas 26-5-71-2; Malinga 23.1-3-62-2; Muralitharan 31-10-62-3; Jayasuriya 11-4-19-2.

Sri Lanka — 2nd innings: M. Vandort b Hoggard 5; U. Tharanga c Cook b Panesar 46; K. Sangakkara c Trescothick b Flintoff 66; M. Jayawardene c Jones b Plunkett 45; S. Jayasuriya lbw b Panesar 4; T. Dilshan c Jones b Hoggard 32; C. Kapugedera c Cook b Plunkett 50; F. Maharoof b Panesar 6; C. Vaas (not out) 34; L. Malinga b Panesar 22; M. Muralitharan c Strauss b Panesar 2; Extras (b-1, lb-3, w-1, nb-5) 10. Total: 322.

Fall of wkts: 1-6, 2-100, 3-143, 4-148, 5-191, 6-223, 7-238, 8-287, 9-320.

England bowling: Hoggard 22-4-71-2; Lewis 20-6-54-0; Flintoff 13-1-38-1; Panesar 37.1-13-78-5; Plunkett 19-2-65-2; Pietersen 2-0-12-0.

England — 2nd innings: M. Trescothick b Muralitharan 31; A. Strauss c Jayawardene b Muralitharan 55; A. Cook lbw b Muralitharan 5; K. Pietersen c Dilshan b Muralitharan 6; P. Collingwood c Dilshan b Muralitharan 9; A. Flintoff c Dilshan b Muralitharan 0; G. Jones b Muralitharan 6; L. Plunkett (not out) 22; M. Hoggard (run out) 4; J. Lewis lbw b Muralitharan 7; M. Panesar lbw b Jayasuriya 26; Extras (b-13, lb-1, w-1, nb-4) 19. Total: 190.

Fall of wkts: 1-84, 2-104, 3-111, 4-120, 5-120, 6-125, 7-132, 8-136, 9-153.

Sri Lanka bowling: Vaas 9-1-28-0; Malinga 7-0-24-0; Muralitharan 30-10-70-8; Jayasuriya 22.5-3-54-1.