Australia have lost aura - Strauss
Andrew Strauss has provided a telling insight into the growing confidence within the England team by insisting Ricky Ponting's squad has lost its aura of invincibility. Ten days after England ended Australia's 75-year unbeaten streak at Lord's, Strauss leapt onto the offensive on the eve of the Edgbaston Test, suggesting Ponting's youthful band do not possess the intimidatory powers of their predecessors.
"I don't think this Australian side has got an aura about it to be honest with you and prior to this Test series starting we didn't feel they had an aura about them," Strauss said. "That's not disrespectful to the players they've got because they've got a lot of very good players but I think the aura came with the likes of Warne and McGrath and Hayden and Gilchrist, all those sort of guys.
"This [Australian] team over time might develop an aura, but right at the moment you've got a lot of guys who are at the start of their Test careers. It doesn't mean you are any more likely to beat them or anything like that but it feels like you are playing against any other Test team."
Strauss' comments are someway short of revelatory - Graeme Smith and Anil Kumble have previously commented on Australia's decline following the retirements of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Adam Gilchrist, to name but a few - and even his opposite number, Ricky Ponting, conceded that there was a grain of truth in his sentiments.
"Any feeling of aura that you get against opposition sides is something that is built up over a period of time," said Ponting. "There are some reasonably fresh faces around our group who are just starting to find their feet at international level, so it's inevitable that the aura of our side is going to change. But it's okay for him to say that now, I'm not sure he was saying that after Cardiff - we had it well and truly over most of their batsmen down there."
Since last year's tour of India, Ponting's side has won five, lost six and drawn three Test matches, and is fighting to repel South Africa's bid for their No. 1 ranking. Australia's crown has already slipped in the shorter forms of the game - the South Africans are rated the world's top-ranked 50-over side, while Australia suffered an embarrassing first-round exit at the World Twenty20 - and Strauss insisted the rest of the world was fast reeling them in on the Test front.
"An aura is when the opposition teams, even though they are on top, are not confident they are going to beat you," he said. "They always expect something dramatic to happen that will bring your team back in the game and put them under pressure again.
"We certainly felt that in 2006-07. Even when we had good days, we were thinking what is going to happen now. Is Gilchrist going to blast a hundred or Warne take five wickets from nowhere? It only comes with a large consistent level of performance for a long period of time. Australia had that, personally I don't feel that's where they are right at the moment."
Strauss conceded England would not establish its own aura without a sustained period of success; a point that was met with agreement by Ponting at his ensuing press conference. "You create aura with a group of guys on top of their game, all heading in the same direction, and with stand-out performances," he said. "It's generated over a period of time with some excellent play, and England's current Test rating would probably indicate that they don't have one."
Key to England's hopes of achieving success in this series is Andrew Flintoff, a man who possessed an aura all of his own at Lord's, and despite not training on Wednesday, Strauss was confident his allrounder would be fit for the third Test.
In the lead-up to Lord's, where he took five second-innings wickets, Flintoff had scans on the injury and it has required regular pain killing to provide him with the chance of repeating his 2005 Ashes triumph. "He bowled two good spells [on Tuesday], one in the middle, one in the nets, and he seemed to come through those okay," Strauss said. "It's always the case, you've got to see how he responds to bowling more than actually what happens when he's bowling. But we are optimistic at this stage."
Given the overcast conditions, the only reasons England will have to change their second Test line-up are if Flintoff is injured or they are desperate to bring in Steve Harmison. "The guys who played at Lord's all performed pretty well so we'd have to be sure the conditions were going to help someone else if we were going to make that change," Strauss said. By confirming that Monty Panesar has been released from the squad, the likelihood of an unchanged attack has increased.
The England dressing room is a quieter place since Pietersen's foot surgery and Ian Bell has tip-toed back into the XI after being dropped during the West Indies tour. Strauss said the entry of Bell, who will bat in Pietersen's spot at No. 4, was reassuring.
"He's a proven Test performer, he's played in the Ashes before and he's done that spell out of the side that a lot of us have been through," he said. "It's not much fun when you are out of it but it makes you very, very hungry when you come back in. And also, you've got a kind of mindset that you've got nothing to lose. You've been out of the side, this is another opportunity for you. I expect him to grasp that with two hands and play some really good innings in the coming matches."
For Ponting, however, the absence of Pietersen provided an undoubted boost to his hopes of making in-roads into their batting. "They've lost some skill out of their middle-order," he said. "I think [Pietersen] is one of the better and more dominant players in world cricket, and I firmly believe England look to him to give them something with the bat, so we'll see over the next five days whether anything has changed.
"Bell is a good player, as we've seen through his career, but he hasn't played as well as he would like against Australia, so it's a great opportunity for us. If we can get the openers out early and get the middle-order out there against a relatively new and shiny hard ball, we can do some damage."
Strauss said it would be "massive" if England could enter the fourth Test in Leeds next week with a 2-0 advantage. "One thing we are very conscious of is not resting on our laurels now we are 1-0 up," he said. "We've got a fantastic opportunity this week to build on that. Complacency is the furthest thing from our minds at the moment. We are expecting a much harder Test match this week and we're ready for it."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo. Alex Brown is Deputy Editor of Cricinfo