London: England coach Duncan Fletcher insisted on Wednesday that his injury-hit side would all be available for selection come next month's first Ashes Test against Australia.
Fletcher's men fly out to Perth, Western Australia, on Thursday with injury concerns over pace bowlers Darren Gough (knee) and Simon Jones (side strain) as well as batsmen Michael Vaughan and Mark Butcher (both knee). And earlier on Wednesday all-rounder Andrew Flintoff, who had had a double hernia operation, said he was unable to run three weeks before the first Test at Brisbane's Gabba ground on November 7. But Fletcher, 54, told reporters at the team's Heathrow hotel, "Everyone's in line to be available for the first Test, including Darren. "Everything's going to plan. The only person who is slightly behind is Andy Flintoff but we can get him ahead of schedule in the next 10 days, two weeks in Australia." However Fletcher, who announced he had signed a one-year extension to his England deal to take him through to 2004, was under no illusions about the size of the task he was facing. "It has to be my biggest challenge but that is what we are all here for," he said. Australia has just hammered Pakistan by an innings in the second Test at Sharjah, twice dismissing its opponents for record low scores inside two days. "It is a strong team," Fletcher readily conceded. "But the only way to approach any Test series is with a positive attitude and the belief that you can win every Test. "You've got to be on top of all three areas, batting, bowling and fielding. If you can do that and play above yourself you've got a chance of winning." And he added that most of England's walking wounded were all healing quickly. "Darren's been bowling off a short run-up and we've got to build it up from here. "Simon Jones has been bowling in the nets at Cardiff. He's had no problems with the injury he's been bowling at 85 to 90 per cent so he's building up nicely." And turning to his batsmen Fletcher added, "Butcher and Vaughan are ahead of schedule and will play from the start." As well as the Ashes, England will have to contend with a One-day triangular series also featuring Sri Lanka, which interrupts the Test campaign before jetting off to South Africa for the World Cup in February. Fletcher admitted that for players involved in all three campaigns combating tiredness would be a problem. "We're going to have to try to ensure players don't get mentally fatigued. "It's something, along with their physical condition, we're going to have to manage as we go along." Fletcher, since becoming England coach in 1999, has forged a productive partnership with captain Nasser Hussain which has seen the side become a match for most opponents in world cricket, although Australia comfortably won last year's Ashes series in England 4-1. Hussain has hinted that he might stand down as captain after the World Cup but Fletcher would like him to continue. "I would like Nasser to remain on during my time because he has done a good job," he said. "But at the end of the day's he's got to make the decision himself." Looking ahead to the series itself Fletcher said the performance of his top-order against Australia's attack would be a key area. "The mental concentration from the batsmen is key. They've got four world-class bowlers whereas most other teams have only two or three. It's important our batsmen don't give their wickets away." But equally a failure to routinely take 20 wickets at a match-winning cost has been at the heart of England's failure to win any of the last seven Ashes series since Mike Gatting's men triumphed down under in 1986-87. England, unless it can tackle that problem, could find itself in for a very long tour indeed.