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May 13, 2008
A year into his tenure as England coach, Moores is approaching the first Test of the 2008 summer with confidence, having witnessed his charges turn a significant corner during their tour of New Zealand in February. From the nadir at Hamilton, where they lost by 189 runs and faced the prospect of a third series defeat in a row, they won the next two Tests to transform their fortunes, and out of adversity the nucleus of a competitive side has been forged.
And yet, the Flintoff factor is not one that can easily be done away with. It is now approaching 18 months since he last took the field in a Test for England, at Sydney during the death throes of the 2006-07 Ashes campaign, but Moores believes he would have been ready to resume his duties, having for now put to one side the ankle problems that have dogged his career.
"Fred would have been in the squad," Moores said. "It would have given us a chance to assess exactly where he is, first hand, but the process of his rehabilitation has been going on for a long time. How many overs he's bowled and what he's done in practice has been logged by the performance centre. Whether he would have been fit enough to play in that Test would have been a decision to make, but in the end it was taken out of our hands."
Though his batting has been hit-and-miss, Flintoff has made a phenomenal impact with the ball since returning to the fray with Lancashire. He has taken 10 wickets at 16.70 in three matches, including a seven-wicket haul against Durham that left his England team-mate, Paul Collingwood, gasping with admiration. Moores believes that, when his side strain clears up - hopefully by the third Test at Trent Bridge - he will be fit enough to form part of a four-man attack.
"The most promising thing is that it's the ankle that has been troubling him over the last two three years, and that, touch wood, has gone away," Moores said. "They've made some repairs, got it stable, and he's pain-free, which is the ultimate thing for a bowler."
And Flintoff is also rapid, capable of bowling at a pace that few in the world can match. For all the worthiness of England's current three-man seam attack, spearheaded by Ryan Sidebottom and Stuart Broad, they undoubtedly lack the extra edge for which Moores' predecessor, Duncan Fletcher, consistently yearned.
Deep down, Moores is no different. "Everyone likes bowlers who bowl 90mph, but they are a rare breed," he said. "Fred's very quick but he's also very accurate, and has a natural pace and a natural line. No-one likes facing 90mph bowlers, but men like Ryan can be successful if they've got control of their own skill and clear methods for getting wickets."
And yet, despite all the speculation, Flintoff will not be present, and so England's fortunes, barring late injury, will be in the hands of the same 11 players who rescued the last series against New Zealand in March. "We've gone through a bit of a journey," Moores said. "We've had our ups and downs, but we've seen a lot of people emerge and one or two changes, and we've won our last two Tests which is a fantastic place to start the English summer.
"International sport is a competitive place, and should remain that way, but it's only fair, for players inside and outside the team, to be given a fair crack at it. It's a balance of consistency, so that if people perform well you'll be loyal, but also to assess that that's the best side that England can put out. That never changes, but the lads that came into the side freshened things up and that was exciting."
"I am satisfied with where we're at. We've got a bit more strength in depth, with three experienced bowlers in Hoggard, Harmison and Flintoff outside the team, and the likes of Shah, Bopara and [Robert] Key playing for the Lions. It's a strong squad of players. We're not going to rest on our laurels, but we've got a lot to build on."
Having settled on his core of players, Moores spoke of now wanting to forge the team's identity. "We've had 12 months now, and you start to get clearer on what style of cricket you play," he said. "That becomes driven by the individuals, because people become settled and the team takes shape. We want to play the sort of aggressive, vibrant cricket we think we can play, and that's for us to identify and deliver."
For all the excitement of a new season - and another brilliantly sunny day at Lord's helped lift the general mood - the opponents are not exactly a new challenge for England. Thursday's match will be the 11th consecutive international fixture between England and New Zealand, and they will have played 19 in a row by the end of the one-day series in June.
Moores, however, insisted that there was no danger of his players losing focus, even with the twin challenges of South Africa and Australia looming ever larger on the horizon. "If you don't look at the now and also a bit in the future then you're probably not doing your job," he said. "It's a balance between both. We have to develop teams in the long term but also got to win in the short term. That's ongoing all the time. If you don't then something's going to go wrong somewhere."