Sri Lanka in England, 2006 May 10, 2006

Flintoff looks to England's future

Andrew Flintoff and Mahela Jayawardene with the npower trophy © Getty Images
Distractions come in all shapes and sizes, as both England and Sri Lanka have been discovering on the eve of the first Test at Lord's. While Sri Lanka's preparations have been undermined first by some untimely criticism from the chairman of selectors, Ashantha de Mel, and latterly by the impending return of their veteran opener, Sanath Jayasuriya, England have a more intangible problem. They just can't lay the Ashes to rest.

Admittedly, it is the nicer problem to have. England's first home Test after the summer before is set to take place almost eight months to the day after the Ashes triumph at The Oval last year, and for England's stand-in captain, Andrew Flintoff, enough is enough. "There's still an excitement about cricket and people are still talking about last year," he told reporters on the eve of the game, "but at some point we've got to move on, and that's going to be tomorrow morning."

Lord's in the spring sunshine is a living, breathing metaphor for rebirth and renewal, with the smell of cut grass and the verdant greenery leaving you in no doubt that summer is round the corner. And when England take the field tomorrow, with a team comprising at least four men who've never played in a home Test before, they'll have no option but to accept that the future is, in fact, the present.

One of those new faces seems certain to be Sajid Mahmood, the Lancastrian paceman who endured a tough baptism in a one-day defeat against New Zealand two years ago, before re-emerging with mixed success against India this winter. "I'm sure he'll have a few nerves jangling about," said Flintoff, "but he's a laid-back lad and he'll get on with it. He's quick, tall and gets bounce as well, so there's definitely a good future for him."

England have delayed naming their team until they've taken one last look at a pitch that Flintoff imagined would be a good, flat batting deck, but with Alastair Cook already guaranteed his place at No. 3 ahead of Ian Bell, the final name seems a straight choice between the spinner Monty Panesar, and the extra seamer, Jon Lewis, who destroyed the Sri Lankans with nine wickets for England A at Worcester last week.

Monty Panesar: anticipating a first home Test © Getty Images
For all that England start as overwhelming favourites, to go into the match without a recognised spinner would be a huge gamble. As Mahela Jayawardene, Sri Lanka's captain, pointed out, visiting sides have a tendency to raise their game whenever they visit Lord's. In three separate visits since 1984, five Sri Lankan batsmen have added their names to the dressing-room honours board, including Jayawardene himself, who led a Sri Lankan run-fest in 2002 with 107 out of a towering total of 555 for 8.

Only three of England's players were around to witness that performance, but seeing as they were the key triumvirate of Flintoff, Marcus Trescothick and Matthew Hoggard, it's a safe bet that their team-mates will be guarded against complacency. Hoggard endured a particularly torrid time, disappearing for 160 runs in 39 overs. Four years later, however, he stands on the brink of becoming the ninth England cricketer to take 200 Test wickets.

"It would be fantastic to join an elite group of Englishmen," said Hoggard, whose own Test debut also came at Lord's, a gripping two-wicket victory over West Indies in 2000. The identity of his new-ball partner has yet to be confirmed - but it won't be Steve Harmison, whose return to competitive action for Durham against Middlesex has been postponed because his wife has gone into labour.

"I don't think you'll find a like-for-like replacement for Steve Harmison," added Flintoff, as if to underline both England's loss in this match, as well as the burden on his and Hoggard's shoulders. Between them they have taken 97% (364 out of 372) of the wickets shared by England's anticipated attack.

As ever, Flintoff was his cheery phlegmatic self as he fronted up for the cameras. "I don't think you can put the England captaincy and burden in the same sentence," he reiterated when asked about the workload that has been forced upon him in the absence of Michael Vaughan.

And besides, he still seemed a little starstruck after performing a duet with Elton John at his benefit dinner in Battersea the night before. "It was fantastic, something special for everyone there - though not me singing!" he said of his duet to the strains of Rocket Man. "But now I'm getting back to what I know best, playing cricket."

If only it were so simple for Sri Lanka, however. A desperately destabilising week shows no sign of abating, and the arrival of Jayasuriya midway through the match will only complicate matters further. However, their coach Tom Moody denied that the off-field issues had been a distraction. "We're at Lord's, we've had a couple of very good days of preparation, and we're blessed with good weather," he shrugged. "We'll just concentrate on our game, and if we perform consistently, we're sure we'll be where we want to be after the fifth day."

Any side with Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas in their bowling attack cannot afford to be taken lightly, however, and for Murali, who has 611 wickets to his name but none as yet at Lord's, the urge for a command performance in what is likely to be his first and last Test at the ground will be overwhelming.

"I'm not the best one to ask!" joked Flintoff when asked what tips he had passed on to England's youngsters. "Murali's tricky, but he's a great bloke as well. I'll pass on advice, but when you face him, you've got to figure it out for yourself. Against someone as good as him, you just have to think on your feet."

England (probable) 1 Marcus Trescothick, 2 Andrew Strauss, 3 Alastair Cook, 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Paul Collingwood, 6 Andrew Flintoff (capt), 7 Geraint Jones (wk), 8 Liam Plunkett, 9 Sajid Mahmood, 10 Matthew Hoggard, 11 Monty Panesar.

Sri Lanka (probable) 1 Michael Vandort, 2 Upul Tharanga, 3 Kumar Sangakkara (wk), 4 Mahela Jayawardene (capt), 5 Tillakaratne Dilshan, 6 Thilan Samaraweera, 7 Farvez Maharoof, 8 Chaminda Vaas, 9 Nuwan Zoysa, 10 Muttiah Muralitharan, 11 Lasith Malinga.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo