Strauss seeks focus amid Flintoff furore
It seemed like a good idea at the time, but England's bid to build momentum ahead of next week's first Test in Cardiff has been spectacularly undermined by reports of Andrew Flintoff's misdemeanours during their recent team-bonding weekend in Flanders.
Instead of looking towards on-field events ahead of tomorrow's three-day warm-up against Warwickshire at Edgbaston, Andrew Strauss was forced at the pre-match press conference to field 15 minutes of questions about Flintoff's alleged drinking problems. The task of getting the team's on-field performances up to scratch ahead of July 8 has been put on the back-burner.
Nevertheless, for Strauss, the practice match in Birmingham, which runs concurrently with Australia's final warm-up against England Lions at Worcester, is a vital part of England's preparations for the Ashes, especially since he and the coach Andy Flower decided, during the recent tour of the Caribbean, to place a greater importance on warm-up games.
"This is not a glorified middle practice, it's time for us to hit the ground running," Strauss told reporters in Birmingham. "It's like warm-ups on tour, you've got a choice of how to approach them, and I've got a strong belief you approach them like a Test match, and try to get the intensity up and hit the ground running."
All eyes will inevitably be on Flintoff, not merely because of his bus-missing exploits in Flanders, but also because this will be his first outing for England since taking a hat-trick in the final ODI against West Indies back in April. Two weeks later he was playing for Chennai in the IPL, but that stint came to a premature end when he suffered a knee injury that required surgery and kept him sidelined until last month.
"He's massively excited about being back in the squad," said Strauss. "He feels bad about missing the bus, and bad about this becoming an issue, but we all know that if he's playing well in the side he's a massive asset."
The other player with the most to prove is Monty Panesar, whose career has been in stasis ever since Graeme Swann emerged as England's senior spinner during the India tour before Christmas. He was dropped during the tour of the Caribbean, and did not play in either the Test series against West Indies, or the subsequent World Twenty20, in which the legspinner Adil Rashid - who will be playing for the Lions against the Australians - emerged as a serious Ashes contender.
In the interim, Panesar has failed to impress for his county, Northamptonshire, picking up just six first-class wickets at a cost of nearly 90 runs apiece. But, he said this was due to his attempts to add more variety to his repertoire, and during a media session at Edgbaston on Monday, he said that he intended to go back to basics in a bid to rediscover his best form ahead of the Cardiff Test.
"For Monty, he's been away from the squad a while, so this is an opportunity for him to show that he's bowling well and is in a good place," said Strauss. "There've been a lot of media reports in the last few months, but we're excited to have him back and he's been really buzzing in the dressing-room in the last few days.
"You look at Monty's record for England, and it's exceptional," he added. "It's up there with some of the best spinners that have played the game. He has been working on variations but the reality is that Monty has taken 99 percent of his wickets by bowling a very good left-arm spinner that turns and has good pace on it. That's his default and he shouldn't stray too far from it."
As for England's opponents, Strauss anticipated that Warwickshire would field the best side that they could put up, although they will be shorn of one significant batsman in Ian Bell, who has instead been given the chance to stake his claim for a recall by captaining England Lions at New Road.
Bell, however, was slightly lacking in roar as he fronted up for the Lions at Worcester. "The message that comes from England is that there is a lot of cricket to come this summer," he said. "This is a great opportunity for all the guys. I'd be very surprised if there were any opportunities for the first Test, but it's another opportunity."
England 1 Andrew Strauss (capt), 2 Alastair Cook, 3 Ravi Bopara, 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Paul Collingwood, 6 Matt Prior (wk), 7 Andrew Flintoff, 8 Stuart Broad, 9 Graeme Swann, 10 James Anderson, 11 Monty Panesar.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo