Flintoff's absence casts a shadow
If England's injury-jinxed cricketers are feeling a touch gloomy as they finalise their preparations for tomorrow's second Test at Old Trafford, then perhaps they should cast their minds back by precisely a year. On July 26, 2005, the country was engaged in another prolonged bout of navel-gazing. After a feverish build-up to the Ashes, the first Test at Lord's had been surrendered with barely a whimper, and the same old story seemed set to be unfurled.
Of course, we all know what happened next, which just goes to show that when it seems your fortunes have hit rock-bottom, the only way is up. Even so, it will be hard for England to dredge any optimism from their current slough of despond. Only last week, it seemed the stage was set for Andrew Flintoff to make an emotional comeback on his home ground. Instead, he has joined Michael Vaughan, Ashley Giles and Simon Jones on the operating table, not to mention the Ashes critical list. The fact that Pakistan are equally debilitated by injury will come as little consolation.
Predictably, Flintoff's absence has dominated England's build-up, with a range of options still being weighed up. At Lord's, England's four-man attack failed to make any headway against batsmen of the class of Inzamam-ul-Haq and Mohammad Yousuf, and if that in itself was not enough to convince Duncan Fletcher of the need for a rejig, then the subsequent side strain incurred by Liam Plunkett has forced his hand.
Into the breach, therefore, comes Sajid Mahmood - a man who was last seen disappearing to all corners of England during a desperate one-day series against Sri Lanka, but who showed on his Test debut at Lord's in May that he can generate the sort of pace, skid and movement that unsettles the best. "My parents are from Pakistan, but I've told them they've got to support England or they won't get a ticket!" he told reporters at Old Trafford yesterday, as he prepared to provide Lancashire with something to excite the home fans.
And that's what this match should be all about for England now. The confirmation of their worst fears vis a vis Flintoff represent a chance for a new beginning, for new heroes to emerge from the wreckage of their best-laid plans. That is especially true for the captain, Andrew Strauss, a man who seemed desperately compromised by his role as "the stand-in's stand-in" during his first six assignments of the summer, but who now has the rest of the season and - who knows - maybe even an Ashes Test or two to stamp some of his own personality on the role.
"Now I'm looking a bit more long-term and I'm looking to win the series," Strauss told reporters at Old Trafford. "I'm just approaching it a little differently and it adds a little more stability to the situation. But we're talking about three games so it's not a massive change in set-up. I'm settling into the job and I'll receive a lot of support from Duncan Fletcher and the rest of the management team."
But will it just be support or something more over-bearing? The impression given at Lord's was that Strauss's strings were being pulled by his inscrutable puppet-master on the pavilion balcony. Fletcher's influence was felt at every critical juncture of that match, not least when England delayed their declaration on the final day. Conservatism has always been Fletcher's watchword, and that's not necessarily a bad thing - take the winter of 1999-2000 for instance, when his first role upon joining the England set-up was to teach a shambolic side how not to lose.
However, it was confirmed this afternoon that Jamie Dalrymple - an Ashley-Giles-like spinner-cum-batsman - has been released from the squad which suggests Strauss will indeed receive the support he so needs from Fletcher. Had Dalrymple made his debut tomorrow, it would have been safe to assume that another drawn series was Fletcher's, and England's, limited ambition.
Quite the contrary, though. Panesar, who will now certainly play, has obvious fallibilities with the bat, and in especially the field, which no doubt irk Fletcher considerably; his favoured players are, in general, all multi-faceted. So in releasing Dalrymple, perhaps Fletcher sees Panesar as the main threat to Pakistan's dominance with the bat. That is, though, rather unlikely that the coach should be so suddenly swayed into believing Monty is a matchwinner; more probable is that he is backing Strauss to the hilt and giving him the players he wants.
Given Old Trafford's inclination to turn from day one, Pakistan have been seriously considering a recall for Sussex's evergreen leggie Mushtaq Ahmed.
"We are keeping all our options open since we don't have a master blaster in our ranks," said Pakistan's coach, Bob Woolmer. He was referring to the continued absence of Shoaib Akhtar, but it might as well have been Fletcher talking about Flintoff.
Woolmer himself has been on about Flintoff too, warning his team not to take England too lightly as a result of his absence. "It would have given our team a psychological boost to play against a player of his quality," he claimed. "It is not a positive for us that he is missing."
Pakistan's openers, Salman Butt and Imran Farhat, might beg to differ, after enduring a torrid enough time against Matthew Hoggard and Steve Harmison at Lord's. But for the celebrated middle-order, to which the vice-captain, Younis Khan, is set to return after recovering from a knee injury, that might well be true. Inzamam has nine half-centuries in consecutive innings against English Test attacks; Yousuf has two double-hundreds and a 48 in three innings. It's all been ridiculously easy pickings for them.
Even without Flintoff to put the wind up them, Pakistan still have plenty respect for the remaining England fast bowlers, as demonstrated by Woolmer's unconventional use of a slab of marble to simulate the steepling bounce that Harmison can extract from a good length. It just goes to show that, for all the suggestions to the contrary in recent weeks, one man doesn't make a team. In the coming weeks, England have a golden three-Test opportunity to discover the true quality of their reserves, because one day, they really will have to do without Flintoff, full stop.
England (probable) 1 Marcus Trescothick, 2 Andrew Strauss (capt), 3 Alastair Cook, 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Paul Collingwood, 6 Ian Bell, 7 Geraint Jones (wk), 8 Matthew Hoggard, 9 Sajid Mahmood, 10 Steve Harmison, 11 Monty Panesar.
Pakistan (probable) 1 Salman Butt, 2 Imran Farhat, 3 Younis Khan, 4 Mohammad Yousuf, 5 Inzamam-ul-Haq (capt), 6 Abdul Razzaq, 7 Kamran Akmal (wk), 8 Shahid Afridi, 9 Mohammad Sami, 10 Umar Gul, 11 Danish Kaneria.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo