x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A fight on and off the field

England's 115-run victory at Lord's to draw first blood in the Ashes was as historic for old hands as it was cruel to the ingénue.

England's 115-run victory at Lord's to draw first blood in an Ashes series for the first time since 1997 was as historic for old hands as it was cruel to the ingénue. Only days after the first Australia defeat at the headquarters of English cricket in 75 years, however, the hopes of the home faithful were being punctured, incised and dulled by the doctors, surgeons and physios.

Seasoned Ashes watchers, who will be settling down for the start of third Test tomorrow, have seen it all before. The announcement that Kevin Pietersen, England's astral batsman, would miss the rest of the series because of surgery on an Achilles injury and Andrew Flintoff could join him any time on the sidelines was a crushingly familiar one. The hyperbole would have you believe that England versus Australia contests are only decided by the efforts of players on the field. In reality the last six series have been more than shaped by the hands of the medical men.

Australia have won five of those series and although they have had the better players, they have also had the healthiest. In series from 1997 to 2006-07 Australia have used 82 players to England's 97, a sharp pointer to the England and Wales Cricket Board to keep their performers fit. England find themselves in a similar situation to 12 years ago when they led 1-0 after a thrilling win at Edgbaston.

They were already deprived of the emerging talents of fast bowler Dominic Cork and when Darren Gough and Dean Headley, their go-to men with the ball, succumbed to an inflamed knee and back injury respectively, they knew they were a beaten side. Australia wrapped up the series with a game to spare. Hopes were high too in a home series in 2001 but this time England had to rebuild their batting order. Graham Thorpe and Nasser Hussain missed six Tests between them while Michael Vaughan didn't feature at all.

In 2002-03, they were silenced before they got off the plane. Gough and Flintoff, both irrepressible even though the pair were at different ends of the career spectrum, returned home without playing and in total, 17 players were used on the tour. It is no coincidence that England's rare successes have come when it is the Australians who have been crocked. Four of England's five Test wins before Lord's came with Shane Warne or Glenn McGrath (or both) watching from the pavilion.

Memorably, McGrath missed England's twin wins at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge four years ago and captain Andrew Strauss must be praying for similar bad luck for the Aussies to redress the balance. England used 12 players in that series, fielding the same XI in four Tests. In Birmingham they will field a different side for the third consecutive game. Statistically, at least, the absence of Pietersen has to be on a par with the strategic blow of losing leader Vaughan for the 2006-07 matches. Twice Pietersen has finished England's top run-scorer against Australia and a man who averages 50 against the old enemy has been replaced by one who can muster only 25 - Ian Bell.

Mike Hussey and Flintoff went for "big" and "huge" as the adjectives to describe the Pietersen news but the optimists are also using similar words to describe the extra space in the dressing room, now his ego has been removed. The potential impact can be gauged by Mike Newell, Pietersen's former coach at Nottinghamshire, who said: "We don't miss him, our dressing room is more relaxed and the culture has changed but I'll be surprised if England win the series without him."

England have a good record when Pietersen is not around. Without him their win percentage is 20 per cent higher than when he is in the team, although he has played far more games (157) than he has missed (19). Still, just look how Bangalore Royal Challenegrs improved in the IPL when Pietersen left for home. Graham Thorpe, the man Pietersen replaced in the England line-up 54 consecutive Tests ago, does not believe he causes personality clashes in the England camp.

"They'll miss him because he's a fine player," said Thorpe. "Too much is made about the egos of KP and Freddie [Flintoff] sparking off each other. I think KP was someone who just did his own thing and would be fine. If anyone needed a quiet word, it was Fred. We saw that at the start of the series when he didn't get things quite right when he was disciplined in Belgium. "He'll need a clip every now and then, someone to put an arm round him saying 'hey, we need you to really be on board, be part of this team and not drifting off'. That's the best way to get the most out of Andrew."

England are getting "the most" out of Flintoff and then some. The all-rounder, who grinned and grimaced through 11 overs in a row to fire England to victory in the fourth innings at Lord's, has said he will do "anything it takes" to be fit for the final three Tests. The Headingley Test follows only three days after Edgbaston. But whether his body holds up is doubtful. That will be the hard to take for England. Flintoff is their talisman and they concede, on average, nearly 150 runs fewer in the first innings when he is in the side.

Meanwhile, Australia appear to be getting stronger. Shane Watson, the all-rounder, is fit after injury and paceman Brett Lee was back to bowling in the training yesterday after coming from a side strain. England have the first scalp but they could be the last casualty. sports@thenational.ae