Deja-vu on the eve of the Ashes decider
Hello, haven't we been here before? The last Test of the Ashes, and it's all to play for at The Oval? It sounds a bit familiar if you ask me. This time four years ago, I was absolutely bricking myself on the eve of that game, (though to be honest, that's pretty much how I spent every day of that summer, so that was nothing new!)
The only difference is that, back then, we were 2-1 up with the Ashes more or less in our hands, so it was ours to lose basically. We didn't even have to win that final Test, so all the pressure should really have been on Australia, but somehow that wasn't quite how it panned out. We spent the build-up thinking, 'we can't let it slip, surely,' and as soon as you start thinking that, you don't play your best cricket.
The secret, I suppose, is to try and be positive at all times, though for England right now, that must be easier said than done. This series really has been swings and roundabouts, with a few dodgems thrown in for fun. We didn't start off too well at Cardiff, then we got a fantastic win at Lord's, and then we had that shocking Test at Headingley ... and then everything went a bit pear-shaped.
Headingley, Headingley ... I guess you're only human, everyone knows you're going to have bad days here and there, but unfortunately, 11 Englishmen decided to have their bad day at exactly the same time. That first innings just wasn't half good enough. They were 102 all out on a wicket that wasn't that bad, just swinging a bit I suppose. We didn't turn up, and we were under the cosh right from the start. That first day cost us the entire Test match.
As a Yorkshireman, it's quite amusing (well, I think that's the word for it) to watch all these results pour in for Tests at Headingley - there've now been 11 draw-less matches in a row since 1997, or something, and still Yorkshire have been struggling to get any wickets at all on the Championship wickets. It's quite bizarre, but then I think the Test wicket is one of the few that hasn't been relaid, or at least that's the excuse I like to use.
It's clear you have to go into Headingley Tests with a positive frame of mind, because you know there's going to be a winner, and you have to make sure it's you. I'm not sure what frame of mind England will need to force a result at The Oval. There have been a lo-ot of runs, and very boring runs, for Surrey this season. It's a total featherbed from what I've seen, and England will have to do something special to get 20 wickets there.
Step forward, Sir Frederick of Flintoff. You can always rely on him to remain upbeat, even with half a leg missing, and right now he'll be thinking that this match is a massive opportunity to sign off with a big bang. He'll be putting his whole heart into the next five days - he always puts heart and soul in for England - and no-one will be trying harder to make sure that England walk away with the Ashes 2-1.
But whatever happens over the next week, I reckon he'll be able to retire happy. It's his body that has told him he can't go on, so it's not a career choice, it's a career necessity, but he's got lots and lots of tales to tell his kids, and a lot of proud moments. Hopefully he's about to add another one to his collection.
My favourite Fred moment came during an Under-19 game in Zimbabwe. We were playing a Test in Bulawayo of all places, and we were struggling to get wickets. At that time, Fred had been told he couldn't bowl because he was suffering from spine curvature in his back, but Bumble the coach told us to put Fred on anyway. He bowled about four overs, got five wickets and he bowled freaking rrrapid. That was Fred through and through. He wasn't supposed to bowl, he did bowl, and he didn't look back.
Of course, there's going to be another chap in the spotlight this week. Jonathan Trott is a very positive sort of a batsman. He likes to feel bat on ball, and he's in a rich vein of form, so it's fantastic news for him to be picked when he's actually scoring runs - I really hope he does well. He actually scored one of his hundreds against us early in the season, at Edgbaston, so I've seen him at close quarters. But I don't want to say what I think about his batting, because ... well, I'm sure the Aussies have already got their bowling plans, but I don't really want to help them!
There's been a lot of fuss about him being a debutant and all that, but he's been in and around the England squad for one-dayers before, so he's not an absolute novice. Besides, you've got to make your debut somewhere, so where better than a massive game at the sharp end of the Ashes? He could become an overnight legend. You can't go in with someone who's not scoring a lot of runs and struggling in form, so you've got to change it somehow, and the obvious answer is to pick someone in form.
But sadly, whoever England pick at The Oval, I'm going to have to revise my series prediction once again, and settle for a final scoreline of 1-1. I just feel that the Aussie batters are far too strong to lose 20 wickets in the last Test, and I also think that England are stuck between a rock and a hard place with their selection, because they can't help but worry what might happen to Fred's knee. We know he'll bowl until he drops, but at the back of their minds, they've got to be careful about bowling him for 30 overs a day.
England have no choice but to go for 20 wickets in this Test, so personally I'd pick Fred as a fourth seamer, and then if it turns you're going to need two spinners as well. It would be a long, long tail if i was picking the team. I guess it's just as well I don't!
Matthew Hoggard will be writing regular columns for Cricinfo through the 2009 season