Don't expect a lot of swing at Headingley
And so the series rolls on to Headingley, that legendary venue where swing is king, and where England, surely, will wrap up the Ashes. Well, maybe they will, but they'd better not bank on the ball hooping round corners for them. My lovely home ground isn't quite the bowlers' paradise it used to be 10 years ago. This season the wicket has got flatter and flatter, and deader and deader, and claiming 20 wickets in Yorkshire's matches has become a real chore.
Even so, you'll be fascinated to learn that there's been a result in every single Test here dating back to 1997 - that's 10 matches in a row - and only one of them has been close. There's obviously something about the wicket that makes it a result wicket, and even though they came up short at Edgbaston on Monday, there's no reason why England should fear they've lost the ascendancy in the series. They are still 1-0 up, after all! Against Australia! God knows we'd have taken that a few times in years gone by.
Okay, so there's some serious worries about a certain Mr Flintoff. Now this is a guy with a seriously high pain threshold - it's almost as high as his threshold for other stuff - so to see the way he struggled in the third Test has to raise eyebrows. Every time he's on the field, he's got a massive aura about him, and that's not just because he's built the size of a shed. He's vocal, he's got a lot of character, and he's like a talisman who rallies the team around.
It would be a big blow to England if he's not playing, and Australia would feel that's a chink in their armoury and it'll be easier for them to win without him, but I think England have shown in the recent past that they can still win Tests without Flintoff. In fact, before the series, everyone was going on, unfairly, about how England's record was so much better without him in the side, so hopefully they can make inroads into the top order and put Australia under pressure, and once they are under pressure, then the wickets can come.
It's been interesting watching how the Aussies have struggled against the swinging ball. They've had so many problems, in fact, that apparently my name was being bandied about in one of the more respectable newspapers for a possible recall. I've only got one response to that - don't be so daft. The selectors haven't spoken to me since the tour of New Zealand, and I don't expect that to change in a hurry. Instead, it's Ryan Sidebottom who's come in as an extra swinger. I'm not sure if he'll get a start, but he deserves a chance because he's been a quality performer for England in recent seasons.
So too has that nice Mr Onions, who gets a bit of movement from a full length and finds good areas - in fact, he reminds me a bit of someone... He's really come in and done well for England this season, and not just England, in fact, because he's got 50 wickets for Durham as well to launch them most of the way to their second Championship title. He's got a nasty bouncer as well, so he's a pretty complete package.
So too is James Anderson, who has become a very exceptional bowler, and has basically delivered the two spells that have really put England on top in this series. When he's got that swinging ball in his hand, I don't think there's a better bowler in the world. He's come on as a man as well, from the quiet little chap I toured with in Australia in 2002-03. He's matured a lot and grown as a cricketer, and he's led the England attack very well for the past 18 months.
He's come out of his shell in that time, because he's grown in confidence and become a lot more consistent than he used to be. That's one of the reasons he's so good now, because he knows his own game at last. When he came onto the England scene, he was straight out of Burnley league cricket, with very little first-class experience, and without knowing what his game was about. He's had to learn the hard way in a lot of international cricket, but now that he's learnt how to bowl in Test cricket, he'll be a great performer for the next few years.
When it comes to the art of swing bowling, I'd be asking him for advice right now, rather than the other way round, because he's done rather well so far in this series, hasn't he? Mind you, there is one aspect of my Test career that gives me particular pride, and that's the way I bowled on utterly dead tracks like Nagpur and Adelaide (and Cardiff and Edgbaston? We'll never know... ) It's all about that old cliché, good areas, but it's also about having the mental strength to stick to your methods, over after over after over.
That could maybe have been Stuart Broad's role this series, but in all honesty, I don't think the management have really worked out what his role should be, and I don't think he has either. It's something that's up for discussion between Tests, because someone needs to tell him: this is what we want you to do, and this is how we want you to perform. It hasn't happened yet, but he's young, he's talented and he's got a lot of tricks. I'm sure he'll become a very good bowler very soon.
There's a little bit of unease among England supporters at the moment, because we're not used to leading in the Ashes, but I really don't think it's panic stations just yet, even with the worries about Fred. Cook and Bopara are under a little bit of pressure because they've not been scoring a lot of runs in this series, and Belly's under pressure because he's just coming back into the side, but all the batters are capable of scoring 50s and 60s quite freely. Broady's come to the party a couple of times as well, and the lower order has scored valuable runs. A few more centuries up top wouldn't go amiss, but it's certainly not a crisis.
Matthew Hoggard will be writing regular columns for Cricinfo through the 2009 season