THE former England hero Phil DeFreitas has the same vibes about the Ashes that he had all those years ago when the coveted urn was last won in Australia.
DeFreitas was only 20 when he was selected for his first England tour in 1986/87, joining a force that was written off as having no chance against the Australians. But contrary to expectations, Mike Gatting's side won the series 2-1, a success that has not been emulated since.
DeFreitas, now cricket coach at Oakham School, suffered with the rest of England's cricket followers when series after series in Australia went pear-shaped, but this year could be different, with Andy Flower playing an important part as coach. "I get the same vibes, the same feeling that we'll go over there with a fair chance of winning," DeFreitas said at Wormsley on Sunday. "It's easy to say that, and playing for the Ashes in Australia is totally different. I know that Ricky Ponting will be up for it, the Australians will be up for it and it certainly won't be easy. It'll be tough, but I do fancy England to win it."
DeFreitas chatted about the Ashes after playing in a new 'old' fixture as a member of a past and present professional side led by Rob Key against a team of under-19s representing Chance to Shine, the phenomenally successful cricket outreach scheme. The match was called Gentlemen versus Players, after the now defunct amateurs versus professionals contest that was laid to rest in 1962. The organisers hope that resurrecting such an evocative name -- the matches started in 1806 -- they could draw attention to the charity and assist fund-raising.
DeFreitas made his debut in the first Test of that Ashes upset, a seven-wicket victory at Brisbane, Ian Botham hitting a magnificent 138. No one had given England a chance, and the Australians, led by Allan Border, could have been forgiven for complacency.
DeFreitas recalled: "We were told we weren't the best side going out to Australia, but looking around the team at players with the experience of Gower, Botham, Lamb, Gatting, Emburey and Edmonds, as a youngster aged 20 looking around the room, I thought 'wow, there are my heroes -- this ia a great side'.
"When we first started the tour, there was a great bonding and friendship with everyone. We lost warm-up games early doors, but no one got really concerned. We felt we had a decent balanced side capable of winning the Ashes. The day before the first Test at a dinner David Gower and Botham stood up and said the real stuff starts now. You could feel there was something special about the group of guys we had out there, and I think that helped us in a big way. I was quite fortunate in that my first room-mate was Botham and then Lamby -- bit worrying, you might think, but it was OK. I escaped from that."
DeFreitas first came across Border a few months earlier during the 1986 English summer. The Australian helped Essex win the championship for the third time in four years, the first with Graham Gooch as captain, but they came a cropper against Leicestershire at Southend. DeFreitas took 6-42 and 7-44 in an attack containing the future BBC cricket commentator Jonathan Agnew, and he dismissed Border twice in a 10-wicket win. "There was a big piece in the press under his name when he said that if I played in the Ashes he would come and get me and that he was after me."
Border was probably so concerned about not losing his wicket to DeFreitas in the Ashes that he fell victim to left-arm spinner Phil Edmonds more often than not. But the Australian pundits were scornful about England's chances before the series. "All sorts had been written about us, but we took no notice of it," DeFreitas said. "Ian Botham's knock in Brisbane set the tone for the est of the tour. It was important to get the senior players firing, and his innings in that Test gave us so much confidence."
DeFreitas believes Flower has done a "fantastic job" as coach. "People sometimes say that you don't need international experience to coach at international level, but my personal view is that you do," he said. "You've got to have played at that standard and to have experienced those situations to pass on that information to the players.
"I think Andy Flower has brought that to the side. You can see the way the players are playing spinners. He's taught them how to play spin because he was a very good player of spin himself, and that's changed our batting as well. He's got the guys playing.
"From the outside looking in, I think the players are being themselves -- they're playing their natural game. There's no one playing and thinking 'I had better get some runs here or I'm out of the side', where we had that before. I always felt that every Test I played would be my last one unless I performed. I don't think they have that now. If you are in, you are given a fair chance, and you have the captain and coach believing in you. And I see that in the whole team and that's the advantage England have now."
DeFreitas shares the common view, accepted by the Australians themselves, that the retirements of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath created a void. "England won't be frightened by this Australian attack," he said. "We used to be concerned about Warne and McGrath and what sort of damage they could do. It's different scenario now. In my book England have to favourites."
At Wormsley, DeFreitas still looked fit and threatening with the ball playing alongside Key and Darren Stevens -- both current Kent -- and former internationals Lou Vincent, Richie Richardson, Devon Malcolm, Ed Giddins, Dean Headley, Alex Tudor, Min Patel and Chris Harris. The 20-over match, while bearing little resemblance to the real Gents v Players, was a worthwhile way of giving young players experience against seasoned professionals and potentially raising money for Chance to Shine. The game at this beautiful rural ground preceded a Lord's Taverners match against the local club Aston Rowant.
Chance to Shine, supported by Brit Insurance, is one of the single biggest grass-roots sports development programmes ever undertaken in Britain. The campaign, run by independent registered charity The Cricket Foundation, aims to establish regular coaching and competitive cricket opportunities in a third of state schools by 2015. That means 5,200 primary and 1,500 secondary schools. A total of £25 million needs to be raised through private donors, which the Government has pledged to match-fund. The England and Wales Cricket Board and all the main cricketing bodies support Chance to Shine, both financially and logistically.