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February 8, 2007
Even without Michael Vaughan, whose fiddly captaincy at Brisbane was instrumental in securing England's decisive 14-run win over New Zealand last week, there is a vibrancy around the camp that has been absent ever since the first morning of the Ashes. "Everybody is confident and now we have got an opportunity to finish a tour that hasn't gone as well as we would have liked on a real high," said Paul Collingwood, England's hero at the Gabba. "It has been a long time coming ... it has been a tough trot."
Of course, another stuffing is very much on the cards at Melbourne on Friday. Despite Duncan Fletcher's admission that Andrew Flintoff is happiest in the ranks, it will be Flintoff who leads England out for the ninth meeting out of 11 against Australia this winter, while the Aussies themselves will be a stronger side than the one that England overturned at Sydney last week. For starters they will be led once again by Ricky Ponting, who sat out that inconsequential game, only to return with a furious century against New Zealand two days later.
"I have noticed that they are talking themselves up a fair bit since winning two one-day games in a couple of days," Ponting warned at a press conference in Melbourne on Thursday. "At the end of the day they have to come out and do it against us - a team that has dominated them all summer."
For all their surprise at seeing England again, Australia are too professional a unit to allow complacency to creep into their mindset. "We all watched the game [against New Zealand], England played really, really well and I thought the way that they bowled was brilliant," said Brett Lee, another key figure who was absent from the Sydney match. "I'll think they'll be going in with plenty of confidence, it just goes to show what winning a match does. They've played really well the last couple of games."
It can't be denied that, by accident rather than design, England have timed their run to perfection. As Matthew Hoggard memorably explained last summer, all it takes in one-day cricket is three or four key players clicking at the right moment, and in Flintoff's bowling, Collingwood's batting, and useful contributions from Monty Panesar, Ed Joyce and Andrew Strauss, England found a framework for success that had been desperately lacking all through the competition.
Rumours of a recall for the injured Kevin Pietersen have proven unfounded, but the decision to send for the young and eager Stuart Broad has distant echoes of James Anderson's rise to prominence on the last Ashes tour. If Broad can stake a claim for a World Cup place over the next three days, then England might have inadvertently located a formula for success in the Caribbean.
Ridiculous, isn't it? A bit of confidence, a bit of enthusiasm, and suddenly the team's entire approach is turned on its head. As Simon Barnes wrote in The Times this week, England's cricketers resemble men who have rushed into a burning house to rescue a baby, but emerge only with a cat. ("It's a nice cat, and you are fond of it, but it's not exactly what you went in for ...") The Ashes are long gone and will long be lamented, but the CB Series trophy no longer seems such a meaningless bauble. It's a shame they didn't think the same of the Champions Trophy way back in October. It might have altered one or two perceptions in time for the main event.
Australia for their part must make do without the allround skills of Andrew Symonds, whose bicep injury is a major concern ahead of the World Cup, although in a newly fit Shane Watson, they too have a fresh player with several points to prove before this series is out. They start as firm favourites, of course, but Fletcher is suddenly sounding bullish for the first time in a long time, insisting that England can put the Aussies under "a lot of pressure".
"We're the underdogs," said Fletcher. "We've got a few injuries and a very, very young side and we've played some very good cricket. What's the limit of this side? There's a lot of growth in it and we could upset a lot of top sides." Talk, however, is cheap - as England have discovered all through a depressing winter. Friday is time for action.
Australia (probable) 1 Adam Gilchrist (wk), 2 Matthew Hayden, 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Brad Hodge, 5 Michael Clarke, 6 Michael Hussey, 7 Cameron White, 8 Brad Hogg, 9 Brett Lee, 10 Nathan Bracken, 11 Glenn McGrath.
England (probable) 1 Mal Loye, 2 Ed Joyce, 3 Ian Bell, 4 Andrew Strauss, 5 Paul Collingwood, 6 Andrew Flintoff (capt), 7 Paul Nixon, 8 Jamie Dalrymple, 9 Sajid Mahmood, 10 Liam Plunkett, 11 Monty Panesar.
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