England breathes easy as Bell is cleared to play
BRISBANE: Ian Bell, England's first choice No. 3 batsman, stood up to the searing pace of Sajid Mahmood in the nets on Wednesday morning and walked out sure he would have no trouble facing the Australian attack even though his left wrist is badly bruised.
It is the only boost England has had since it arrived two-and-a-half weeks ago and it may have far reaching consequences when the first Test begins at the Gabba on Thursday.
Bell is one of the England players who must prove their Test status if those mythical Ashes are to be retained. Paul Collingwood, Bell's partner in a face-saving stand against South Australia last week, is another; not young but inexperienced and, like Bell, a bonny fighter as the folk in his native Sunderland would say.
If Bell were a boxer he would be Ian `The Battler' Bell while Collingwood would undoubtedly be `KO' Collingwood. Both are as tough as teak chests, both have a never-say-die spirit which is the essence of the Ashes and both want cricket fame as a kleptomaniac needs to steal.
At the moment they are both unproven like Geraint Jones, Monty Panesar and Mahmood. To keep the Ashes England needs such cricketers to come good and as Andrew Flintoff, the England captain, emphasised the chance is there if they can grab it.
As this series the most talked about in the last 130 years of Australia-England conflicts gets underway, England is the outsider. The bookmakers here rate it 5-1 to win the series but there are subtle signs that the Australians are rattled.
Their captain Ricky Ponting has played down all talk of pressure, of the difference now that England has possession of the urn, and said that he did not care a whit for England's plans. But they have delayed announcing their team in a bid to gain an advantage. Two years ago that would have been unthinkable.
Flintoff made a fascinating contrast. He admitted that he was excited by the chance to defend the Ashes, shrugged off questions about a possible return by Michael Vaughan as captain and spoke of his experience walking out into this vast stadium and thinking how it would be to lead an England team in front of a full house.
He clearly relishes the challenge, hinted that England would attack whenever the opportunity arose and stuck to the tradition of waiting until the toss to name the team.
Still England remains underdog in a country so mad about this enthralling series that there is no other topic of conversation. It was only 17 seconds before I received my first sledging. "It's a long way to come to get a flogging," sneered the Immigration Officer examining my passport at the airport.
Back in England the wise ones have gone quiet, a sign they believe England cannot win and that, in the words of one old Yorkshire player, "there will be nothing but sorrow at the end of this trip."
My own feeling is that England might sneak it 1-0 and make Flintoff, the fourth England captain after Hutton, Illingworth and Gatting, to win a series here since the war. Such is the intensity of this encounter that the battle is bound to be memorable and if England retains the trophy the Australian public will never forgive the losers.
The probable teams: Australia: Ricky Ponting (capt.), Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Damien Martyn, Michael Hussey, Michael Clarke, Adam Gilchrist, Brett Lee, Shane Warne, Stuart Clark and Glenn McGrath.
England: Andrew Flintoff (capt.), Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook, Ian Bell, Kevin Pietersen, Paul Collingwood, Geraint Jones, Ashley Giles, Matthew Hoggard, Steve Harmison and James Anderson.
Umpires: Steve Bucknor (West Indies) and Billy Bowden (New Zealand); Match referee: Jeff Crowe.