x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Storms brewing for England

Despite a solid display, cracks have started to emerge in their team, says Gideon Haigh.

On the eve of the Edgbaston Test, the long-term forecast projected Monday going the way of Saturday, swamped by the deluge. The forecast changed, giving England the chance to aim for victory; it might have been better for their prospects in the series had the rain fallen as first expected. By the end of the home team's unsuccessful victory thrust on Monday evening, all the members of their attack had done a heavy week's work: James Anderson (45 overs), Graham Onions (36), Graeme Swann (33), to a lesser extent Stuart Broad (29), to a proportionally greater extent Andrew Flintoff (30), for not since Denis Compton has a cricketer's knee been of such national concern. In Flintoff's case, too, there is an ankle, hip and back to worry about as well.

As the long day waned in Birmingham, Marcus North swiped Swann high down the ground. Flintoff at mid-off turned like the Queen Mary, and set off in pursuit at the pace of, well, a pedalo. The ball pitched, almost stopped, and just inched to the boundary. Flintoff's relief at being able to walk the rest of the way was palpable. With the fourth Test at Headingley beginning this Friday, there will be little time for recovery. All the king's horses and all the king's men will be trying to put Flintoff back together again, but from Andrew Strauss it could be inferred that the prognosis is no better than it was for Humpty Dumpty.

"I think we can cope without him," said England's captain. "We've had to do it a number of times in the last two years, so it wouldn't be anything new to us. "Generally the bowlers have stepped up when he hasn't played, but at the moment he's in great nick with both ball and bat, so we don't want to play without him if we can help it. You have to swing with the punches you get, and if [he is unfit] we've got a good enough squad to be able to deal with that."

Strauss professed to feeling positive about proceedings, the first-innings bowling of Anderson and Onions, effectively harnessing the conditions, giving special satisfaction. England's predicament, however, is that both bowlers are swing, and therefore climate, dependent; Flintoff alone among his fellows, although wicketless here, has the pace and panache to work against the character of the conditions and the grain of the game.

Flintoff's batting - here seen to its best advantage in almost a year - would also be missed. Broad made runs and took wickets at Edgbaston, but in both instances after they really mattered: even if they both shave only every so often, Broad is hardly a like-for-like swap. Nor did England, although they held the upper hand for much of the match, learn a great deal from the draw that had not already been acknowledged. Their batting again appeared dependent on Strauss with Ian Bell and Ravi Bopara squandering opportunities. As at Cardiff, the slow bowling of Swann lacked first penetration, then direction.

If England have to permutate their XI, the possibilities for Headingley are either Steve Harmison, although he was troubled by blistered feet during Durham's nine-wicket win over Sussex, or the horses-for-courses pick of Ryan Sidebottom. None will alter the balance of power in England's favour; at best their effect will be neutral. The better of a draw and the retention of a 1-0 lead was a satisfactory result for the home team under the circumstances of the Edgbaston Test, with its incessant rain, fluctuating light and constant interruptions from both.

The strong feeling in the aftermath was that this Australian team is weak enough to lose the Ashes. The trouble is that England might not be quite strong enough to win them. sports@thenational.ae