Wednesday, August 5, 2009

We're stronger with Flintoff - Onions

Andrew Flintoff featured only briefly during England's training session at Headingley on Wednesday, but Graham Onions is confident the ailing allrounder will be available for the fourth Test. Flintoff, battling an injured right knee, was withheld from all bowling and running drills, but did bat for 20 minutes, a mildly encouraging sign for England.

Such is the concern over Flintoff's fitness that England named an expanded squad for the fourth Test including Jonathan Trott as batting cover, and bowling insurance in the form of Ryan Sidebottom and Steve Harmison. Flintoff's fitness and the condition of the Headingley pitch will determine the eventual make-up of England's XI and no decision is expected until the morning of the match.

Flintoff is determined to round out his Test career with rousing performances at Headingley and The Oval, but whether his knee will allow him to participate, much less excel, remains to be seen. Onions, for his part, was hopeful Flintoff would be cleared to play the fourth Test, but only if he was confident of surviving five days.

"We all know he's a legend," Onions said prior to training. "He's a great person to have in our team. Being totally honest, I think we're stronger with him in the team, but that's only if we're 100% fit. Andrew's going to be very honest. He's going to have a run out today and it's great for him. He's batting and bowling really well. It's a shame his body's in discomfort for the moment but he'll do everything he can to be fit."

Flintoff may have gone wicketless at Edgbaston last week, but still served as an inspiration for his team-mates in the field. Onions said Flintoff's advice and positive reinforcement boosted the spirits of England's younger fast bowlers as they strove to shut the Australians out of the series.

"What was great in the last Test was he got the bowlers together and said, 'We can win this game," Onions said. "He gave us a few reminders at different times what we needed to bowl to different batters. That's Andrew Flintoff. He'll give everything to the team and will do everything he possibly can for England to win the Ashes. He said, 'I know you're all very excited, but just hold your nerve and as long as you keep believing in tough times we'll come out on top.'"

Flintoff's mortgage on the back pages of the nation's newspapers was temporarily lifted at Edgbaston when Onions opened the second day's play with the wickets of Shane Watson and Michael Hussey off consecutive deliveries. Onions also accounted for Ricky Ponting in a spell notable for deft swing and a relentless probing of the pads.

His efforts justified the faith of Geoff Miller's selection panel, which has preferred him over the more seasoned Steve Harmison at Lord's and Edgbaston, and continued a stunning rise to prominence at international level. Onions' eight wickets in this series have come at the unrivalled strike-rate of 41.7, taking his career tally to 18 wickets at 23.50 from four matches.

"It was very special - to get two wickets in two balls (and) to have the captain throw me the ball in the first place was great for me," he said. "Andrew Strauss said at the start, 'You're under no pressure at all, just go out and enjoy yourself'. I'm trying to say that every time I'm out there and go out to bowl. It's the same as with Durham. I'm thoroughly enjoying myself. It's a great time in my career, and I'm not feeling under too much pressure at the moment.

"It does take a little while to find your feet. I'm playing an Ashes series against the best team in the world. I just have to remind myself that. I'm my own biggest critic. But that's me, that's Graham Onions. I push myself hard all the time, whether it's my fifth Test or my 60th Test."

Onions and James Anderson received a none too subtle backhander from Ricky Ponting after the Edgbaston draw over their supposed inability take wickets when the ball does not swing. The England duo combined for nine wickets under heavy Birmingham skies in Australia's first innings, but managed just two over the final five sessions when neither pitch nor atmosphere was providing them assistance.

Onions has played precisely 130 fewer Tests than Ponting, but appeared unruffled by the Australian captain's remarks. Rather, Onions expressed confidence his past experience of playing at Headingley would hold him in good stead.

"We all know that when the ball swings it's massive for us," he said. "If you're just bowling straight against good players you're going to go for runs. As England cricketers we need to make sure that ball swings or does something off the straight or be aggressive. [The second] morning [at Edgbaston] was quite humid. If we get a day like that here - and I've had many days for Durham like that - then the ball does swing.

"I feel as though we're good enough if the ball doesn't swing. I believe, and everyone in the England dressing room believes, we can still beat Australia. That's without the swinging ball and just as using our skills as bowlers. We were close to winning the last Test. We put ourselves in a strong position, and of course it didn't happen. We took a lot of confidence from that."

Tendulkar targets 15,000 Test runs

has said he is not satisfied with his achievements and hopes to accumulate 15,000 runs and win the World Cup in 2011.

"I am not pleased yet with what I have done," Tendulkar, who has scored a record 12773 Test runs at an average of 54.58 from 159 matches, said in an interview with the Wisden Cricketer. "Sunil Gavaskar has told me that I have to get to 15,000 runs. He said he would be angry with me and would come and catch me if I didn't. I admire him so much and to score that many would be a terrific achievement, but that is not the only aim." His other big cricketing ambition is to "win the World Cup in 2011".

Tendulkar, 36, also spoke about how he has been consistently playing with pain. "I always play in pain, all the time. I played with a broken finger for the last three months, but you know when pain is manageable or not, and most of the time I can do it," he said. "I can still do what I did when I was 25 but the body is changing, so your thought process has to change too. I have had to change how I think, which is about taking less risk."

Tendulkar also disagreed with John Buchanan, former Australia coach, who felt Tendulkar had become susceptible to the short ball early in his innings because of a lack of footwork. "It is only his opinion; John Buchanan doesn't have to be right all the time. If I couldn't handle short deliveries, then I wouldn't still be scoring runs," he said. "Maybe he needs to change his opinion. There must be something very wrong with all the bowlers around the world that they have allowed me to score so many runs."

Don Bradman had said Tendulkar reminded him of himself and the Indian batsman was the only modern player in Bradman's all-time XI. Does Tendulkar think the same way about anyone? "I would say Virender Sehwag comes closest to my style."

Tendulkar said he was not thinking about retirement yet but he would know when to quit cricket. "I will know when it is the right time, I won't have to be dragged away. I am the person who will make the decision and I will know whether I still belong."

He admitted life after cricket wouldn't be easy. "It's a scary thought. It has been there for my whole adult life, it will be difficult, I have been around for a long time, I can imagine when I finish I will long to face just 10 more balls but you have to move."

Lee is '100% ready to go'

Brett Lee is adamant he is fit enough to lead Australia's Ashes fightback at Headingley on Friday despite concerns within the team over his ability to last the match. Lee missed the opening three Tests with a side strain but has bowled for the past eight days and believes he has done enough to demand selection.

When asked if he was ready to play, Lee was blunt: "Yes, 100%." And have you done the work? "Yes."

He spoke minutes after Shane Watson said Lee would need a warm-up game before appearing in a Test and Jamie Cox, the selector on duty, must have reservations about the fast bowler appearing in such a crucial contest. Australia have to win at Headingley to have a chance of taking the series and retaining their No. 1 ranking, which will drop to four if they lose.

After improving his output over the past week, Lee, who has been given a medical clearance, does not understand the fitness concerns. "Hopefully I've done everything I can to prove that I'm ready to go," he said. "I'm confident if I was called upon tomorrow I'd be ready to get through. I was out there today charging in, bowling rapid, and am really happy with the way I've gone."

At the start of the tour there were serious questions over Lee's place in the side following a long recovery from ankle surgery, but he showed he was still Australia's leading man with seven wickets in Worcester during the final warm-up before the opening Test. However, his plans were crushed when he suffered the side problem and had to watch Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle struggle while England took a 1-0 lead.

"Honestly, it's been really, really difficult," he said of watching. "I love playing cricket and would love to be out there. Sitting on the sidelines [was hard] when I was ready to play the first Test. Unfortunately I've had two muscle strains in 18 to 20 years of cricket. It's just happened at the wrong time." If Lee is picked, it will increase pressure on Siddle and Johnson, while Stuart Clark is also being considered following Australia's problems over the past two matches.

Lee bowled with menacing intent for more than an hour on Wednesday and struck Michael Hussey on the side of the helmet with a fearful blow. His speed increased as the session progressed in an encouraging return to full training duties.

"I've been bowling for two weeks, and bowled eight days straight," he said. "Most days have been bowling back-to-back, morning and afternoon sessions. Today I bowled pretty much a full session and my pace felt really good. I'm 100% ready to go."

Lee was spotted on Tuesday in a private session under the supervision of the coach Tim Nielsen, the bowling coach Troy Cooley and the physiotherapist Alex Kountouris. His comeback has provided Australia with a full complement of fast bowlers to choose from for the first time this series.

Shane Watson, who will open in the fourth Test and provide some back-up overs, has his doubts over Lee. "Coming back from a side injury, or any injury in general, you normally need at least one game under your belt to have a big crack in a game before a Test match or a real big game," Watson said. "I know from my experience that you're not absolutely fully confident you are able to get through it until you do get through a big game. I think at the moment that there's probably less chance of him being picked because of that reason."

Lee has endured a frustrating month on the sidelines, undergoing several different rounds of treatment on the affected rib area, including one involving a laser. Wednesday's net session at Headingley provided him with an avenue to channel his pent-up aggression, and Australia's batsmen were hurried throughout.

"He bowled at full pace, which is not the nicest thing to face in the nets when the nets aren't super flat," Watson said. "It's great for him to see him charging in. Obviously he's still maybe a game away to get under his belt before he might be in calculation for selection, but it's great to see him out there firing." Lee thinks much differently but will have to wait to learn whether he adds to his 76 Tests and 310 wickets.

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