Freddie and the Ashes crusade

England want to retain the Ashes and in doing so, set up an era of success. So, as a strategy perhaps they should always have an eye on the chance to force a draw, writes Ted Corbett.

Andrew Flintoff, the England captain, stood in front of the airplane steps at Heathrow, and declared he was ready to fight for the Ashes, that his team cared nothing for the Australian threat but only for their own preparations, and that they all hoped to replicate the triumph of 2005.

"It is why we play," he said in stentorian tones. Flintoff looked as Richard I — the Lion Heart King — must have looked as he set off on the Crusades and every England fan was encouraged by his words. Oh, Freddie, if only it were that simple.

The facts are all against him. Australia have recovered from that narrow Ashes defeat, their heroes — Ricky Ponting, Glenn McGrath — are more heroic, their failures, like Jason Gillespie, have been flung on the scrapheap or, like Damien Martyn and Adam Gilchrist, made a miraculous recovery. Their champions are still champions in both the Test and one-day matches and show no signs of slowing down.

England, poor England, have slipped so badly it is difficult to remember that they won that epic Ashes series. Michael Vaughan may never play again, a wrangle over the leadership ignored Andrew Strauss who had just won the Test series against Pakistan and added that burden — captaincy — to Flintoff the fast bowler, the big hitting batsman and the key fielder; the wicket-keeping schism is still the selectors' biggest worry.

Simon Jones, the bowler of devastating reverse swing 18 months ago, is still recovering from an injury that will keep him out of cricket for another few months; time for his replacement Sajid Mahmood to learn his trade. One former Test captain reminds me whenever we meet that Mahmood will be better than Jones but at the moment this ambling quick is still wearing visible L-plates.

If Andrew Flintoff's bowling is back to its best England will be stronger but he has another task to add to his workload. Flintoff must also act as mental coach to Steve Harmison who travels abroad with all the enthusiasm of a lobster near a pan of boiling water. I guess you could get him to point to a map of Australia, Pakistan or the Caribbean and shout "There be dragons!"

His homesickness has always been with him — but whatever happened to this once great fast bowler? We blinked in disbelief when he flattened seven West Indies batsmen for 12 runs, one of the all time great Test performances; now we are blinking again as he adds wides and no-balls to full tosses and long hops.

Consistency has not been his middle name but it is with sadness that I tell you — for more than one reason — that shortly before he died Fred Trueman told me he could cure Harmison's ills in one net session. It is just as sad that no England fast bowler ever asked Trueman to help him bowl destructively.

Harmison's match-winning performance against the Pakistan batsmen on a trampoline of a pitch at Old Trafford was not what England needed, although he looks a certainty to pile up Aussie wickets in the third Test on Perth's fast track.

If Flintoff can talk Harmison into action, if Matthew Hoggard finds a tiny amount of help for his swing and Flintoff has the energy to produce another of those exaggerated triumphant gestures — which must take as much out of him as his bowling — England may bowl Australia out once or twice for reasonable totals.

The batsmen can build big scores and we should expect that Ian Bell, named the world's most promising young player by ICC recently, will play a succession of long, possibly boring, but essential innings from No. 5.

There are two major questions. Will Marcus Trescothick not only stay the course, but make worthwhile scores after his tussle with an illness that still dare not speak its name? Will Kevin Pietersen learn to curb his inclination to use his bat as a bazooka when a gentle tap is sometimes the better option?

There is one other way to success for England. Don't laugh but I wonder if the Australians might not collapse in front of two left-arm spin bowlers.

All right, go ahead and have a good laugh. The last time England based their attack on two left-arm spinners was in the dark ages when they had maestros like Wilfred Rhodes, Colin Blythe and Frank Woolley to give the ball a sinister tweak.

We should remember that the Australians have no great record against spin, that Hedley Verity twice forced Don Bradman into rash shots at Lord's in 1934 and that the selectors — foolishly as it turned out — were so convinced that off spin was the way past the bats of the Australians in 1950-1 that they chose three, although for reasons beyond comprehension, not Jim Laker.

So Ashley Giles as a late order all-rounder and Monty Panesar, partly for comic relief and partly for the best left-arm spin in an England team since Johnny Wardle and Tony Lock, could be a major force by the end of the series.

It will not start out that way. Duncan Fletcher is a conventional coach who believes in the virtues of pace, depth in batting and good fielding as the basis for any cricket team.

Fletcher will insist that three or four quick bowlers play at Brisbane in the first Test, probably rely on Giles before Panesar because he was one of the Ashes winners and maybe hold back Panesar for the final Test in Sydney where the pitch has been known to take spin.

I have no quarrel with Fletcher's theory but there is another way to ensure the England fans return smiling.

England want to retain the Ashes and in doing so, set up an era of success. So, as a strategy perhaps they should always have an eye on the chance to force a draw. Even as early as the toss.

It will not be pretty and there will be times when those followers who have spent a large proportion of their annual wage to make the trip Down Under will feel they have wasted their money. By packing the batting — big Freddie at No.7 behind Trescothick, Strauss, Bell, Pietersen, Collingwood and Alastair Cook sounds right — followed by Geraint Jones and Giles, Hoggard and Harmison — England can play for a draw from the start.

You will say this is negative, that the Ashes were won back with dash and adventure and all the thrills of the fair and besides we want more from a Richard Lion Heart captain.

Somewhere along the line though, these tactics might anger the Aussies so much that they crack, their old folk limp back to the pavilion — or their retirement home — and the especially composed anti-Pom ditties die in Aussie throats.

Might be worth a try because, let me remind you, all's fair in love and war whatever the purists with their Spirit of Cricket say.

The Australians did not become world champions by offering prayers for their opponents every night. Now it is time for the kangaroo to be at the receiving end.

Let battle commence.