Flintoff furore won't stop England
Given that this is the eve of the Old Trafford Test match, England's captain Michael Vaughan might have preferred to be concentrating on such matters as personal preparation and team selection. Instead he was being forced to justify his controversial comments earlier this week, when he seemed to lay the blame for England's World Cup disaster at the feet of his colleague and team bon viveur, Andrew Flintoff.
Whatever the motives or otherwise behind Vaughan's "despicable" comments (as they were branded by Jim Cumbes, the Lancashire chief executive), Flintoff will not be on hand to provide his own riposte - except when the pair sit down for a peace-making lunch today. Last week he underwent his third bout of ankle surgery in as many years, and could yet be missing for the entire summer. But despite the furore, Vaughan said his position with the rest of the England team hadn't been affected. "The team looked at it and laughed," he said. "We've all been very honest about our own performances at the World Cup and they didn't make that article. It hasn't affected our preparations at all."
For what it's worth, the saga has distracted from what is otherwise a pretty unappetizing contest. Last week at Headingley, West Indies were routed by a record margin of an innings and 283 runs. This week they are still facing up to the loss of their captain, Ramnaresh Sarwan, who has flown home after damaging his shoulder in a fielding accident. In fact, England are so confident of a series-sealing victory that on Sunday, they took the unusual step of naming not only their squad of 12 but an unchanged starting 11, with Ryan Sidebottom rightly retained after his matchwinning eight-wicket haul.
It's a dismal state of affairs. West Indies were once the biggest drawcard in the game, but now their decline seems nothing short of terminal. Daren Ganga, Sarwan's replacement as captain, spoke of his pride as he prepared to lead the region for the first time, but no-one truly believed him when he insisted his side were still in with a chance in the series.
"It's very difficult to compare eras in terms of players," said Ganga. "We have a great legacy as a West Indian people, a West Indian team and we understand that as players but a lot more than that is necessary to move forward." But quite how they hope to move forward is less obvious. Although the team has been boosted by the return of Shivnarine Chanderpaul, who missed the Headingley match with a knee injury, they have been badly hindered by a stomach injury to their most potent remaining player, Chris Gayle, who is likely to play as a batsman but may not be able to bowl his offspin.
If that happens, then Marlon Samuels, Sarwan's replacement in the squad, could be parachuted into the middle order, but it'll take something special for West Indies - who were bowled out twice at Headingley in less than a full day's play - to survive on an Old Trafford pitch that is green, hard and expected to be lively. "We didn't deal with the English conditions well and we need to adapt better," said Ganga. "We need to think about the process of partnerships, the process of bowling in partnerships and the process of creating chances for us to get 20 wickets. The series is not beyond us. A lot of people have written us off but cricket is played on the field."
Given the popgun nature of their new-ball attack, West Indies are likely to trade one of their job-a-day seamers - probably Jerome Taylor (for all that he took a five-for against MCC at Durham) - and opt for the extra pace of Fidel Edwards. But either way, they will be hard-pressed to restrain an England batting line-up that has helped itself to seven centuries in just three innings of this series. They have shown neither the accuracy to contain, nor the incisiveness to dismiss, and England have declared in every innings they have played.
Aside from the embarrassment that could be headed Vaughan's way when he leads his team out in front of Flintoff's Lancashire faithful, there's little cause for unease in the England camp. Steve Harmison showed glimpses of a return to form when he wrapped up West Indies' tail at Headingley, and the arrival of Allan Donald could just provide the spark of confidence that has been missing from his game ever since the departure of England's former bowling guru, Troy Cooley.
Harmison memorably grabbed 11 wickets in his last Test at Old Trafford, against Pakistan last summer, and a similar display this week would enable his captain to become England's most successful leader of all time, overhauling the record of 20 that he currently shares with Peter May. And if that happens, then even the Lancashire boo-boys might afford him a grudging cheer.
England 1 Andrew Strauss, 2 Alastair Cook, 3 Michael Vaughan (capt), 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Paul Collingwood, 6 Ian Bell, 7 Matt Prior (wk), 8 Liam Plunkett, 9 Ryan Sidebottom, 10 Steve Harmison, 11 Monty Panesar.
West Indies (probable) 1 Chris Gayle, 2 Daren Ganga (capt), 3 Devon Smith, 4 Shivnarine Chanderpaul, 5 Marlon Samuels, 6 Runako Morton, 7 Dwayne Bravo, 8 Denesh Ramdin (wk), 9 Daren Powell, 10 Corey Collymore, 11 Fidel Edwards.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo