Australia v England, 4th Test, Melbourne December 24, 2006

Flintoff focussed despite festivities

Andrew Flintoff: still focussed despite Ashes loss © Getty Images

Andrew Flintoff is adamant that England's cricketers will not allow the festive season to be a distraction, as they prepare for the start of the fourth Test at Melbourne, which gets underway on Boxing Day. Already 3-0 down in the series, England are anticipating their largest and most vocal support yet, as thousands of English fans make the trip Down Under for Christmas and New Year, and though the Ashes are already lost, Flintoff is determined to put on a good show regardless.

"We are playing for a lot," said Flintoff. "Obviously we are playing for the occasion - Boxing Day at Melbourne is huge - and we want to show we can win. I've only been [to the MCG] once before, and I walked in the other day, and you see the stands and see the size of it, and it is exciting. It's exciting for every one of the lads who takes the field on Tuesday."

"We've done this before in South Africa," said Flintoff, as he shrugged off the conflicting demands of Christmas with his family and preparations for such a big match. "I'll wake up on the 25th and open up our presents with the kids, but put on our Vodafone kit and head off to practice. That's just the way it happens. It's not a holiday. We're here to do a job and play cricket. We're going to enjoy Christmas Day, but from my point of view the focus will be Boxing Day and not the turkey!"

A record-breaking crowd of nearly 100,000 people a day is expected to pack into the stadium for the first four days of the match, especially now that Melbourne's favourite son, Shane Warne, has announced that this will be his last Test in his home city. But Flintoff dismissed any suggestion that the emotion of the occasion would make the Australians any more determined than usual.

"I don't think you expect anything else when you go into a Test match with Australia," he said. "They'll be playing to win irrespective of people retiring or whatever. We know they'll come at us hard again and we expect a fierce game of cricket, as the first three have been. To be honest, the publicity is not something I'm bothered with. There's been a few things happen in the world of cricket, but we can't let it interfere with our preparation.

"We've all played in front of crowds before," he added. "This is just a few more of them. I don't think it affects how you prepare or what you do. The lads will be going out to prepare in their own ways, because everyone is different. I've said it few times but there's a lot of character and pride in that dressing-room, and they'll be wanting to show what good cricketers and what a good team they are."

Shane Warne: 100,000 pairs of eyes will be watching his final moments at the MCG © Getty Images
For Flintoff, however, Christmas is not the only distraction on his mind. His troublesome left ankle, which has restricted his bowling to the extent that he has yet to deliver a spell of more than five overs in the series, received another injection in the build-up to this Test. And meanwhile, his hold on the England captaincy is looking ever more precarious, now that his predecessor, Michael Vaughan, has been named in the one-day squad for next month's Commonwealth Bank Series.

Of the first of those problems, Flintoff insisted that the injection was purely precautionary. "It's no secret I've had some discomfort in it over the past week or so, but I don't envisage any long-term problems," he said. "If you speak to any bowlers, they all have areas of discomfort. Mine's in my ankle, so I'll just have to live with that, to be honest."

On the question of the captaincy, however, Flintoff seemed rather more resigned to his fate. "An announcement is going to be made after the Test series," he said. "I'm just concentrating on Tuesday. Michael Vaughan has been the England captain, I've been doing this in his absence until Michael is fully fit. We'll see what happens. It's something I've done and it's something I'm comfortable doing, but whether I'll definitely still be doing it I probably can't say at this stage."

With three days to go until the fourth Test gets underway, there is still plenty time for the true character of the wicket to be revealed, although Flintoff thought that it had seemed pretty damp in the early stages of its preparation. If it were to remain that way, then the four-seamer option is likely to be retained, with Monty Panesar inked in as the sole spinner ahead of Jamie Dalrymple. "We have a talented bowling attack, and we have to keep believing the lads in the field can take 20 wickets," said Flintoff. "I truly believe they can."

Once again, however, Flintoff would not be drawn on specific selection issues, in particular the rumour that Geraint Jones - who has been overlooked for the one-day series - is set to be dropped in favour of Chris Read. "Open your eyes!" he joked, when asked the usual question. "What we've said all trip is the side gets announced on the morning of the Test. We'll finalise the side the night before."

No such concerns for Australia, who are all set to name an unchanged XI with Warne and Glenn McGrath the twin focal points of the team. "There are going to be distractions but I think they are going to be enjoyable, and ones that will only encourage and inspire us when the hard decisions have to be made," said Adam Gilchrist, Australia's wicketkeeper, who admitted his side were gunning for a 5-0 send-off. "Do we want to dig in and do the work or say 'who cares, 3-0?' I think we'll go the hard route because we'll be inspired by the guys we are saying farewell to."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo