County news July 4, 2014

Flintoff comeback: is it tonight?

The Andrew Flintoff guessing game is back in operation after Lancashire named him in their NatWest T20 Blast squad to face Warwickshire at Edgbaston and again encouraged speculation that tonight might be the night he makes a much-heralded return to professional cricket. Or there again, it might not: Lancashire are giving nothing away. Perhaps in this case they should do.

With the five-year anniversary since his last competitive match rapidly approaching, Flintoff, at 36, is edging ever closer to a return. If he makes it tonight, he might for once struggle for the headlines - contending, as he will be, with the rival attraction of two televised World Cup football quarter-finals, including the appearance of the hosts Brazil.

Flintoff turned up at Lancashire second XI game at Southport on Thursday and had a decent batting net plus a longish bowl in the middle.

One observer was asked for an opinion on Flintoff's comeback by ESPNcricinfo but he was determinedly looking to the future and claimed to be more taken by the batting talents of Haseeb Hameed, an England U-19 who made an impressive, if cautious, 30.

It would also be unusual if he returned in Birmingham, so denying the home crowd at Old Trafford the chance to observe a spot of history. But Lancashire now have a run of three away games before returning to Old Trafford to face Derbyshire on July 18 and Durham, in their final match, six days later. A partisan crowd and a home quarter-final potentially already secured: that sounds more likely.

Flintoff, the former England allrounder, and hero of their 2009 Ashes triumph, came out of retirement in May but although his efforts have commanded respect he has yet to force his way into a Lancashire side which lies second in the North Division and is strongly placed to qualify for the quarter-finals.

He has made a couple of appearances for Lancashire's 2nd XI, even playing a 50-over match against Nottinghamshire where he thumped 40 off just 23 balls to help his side to victory. Lancashire's assistant coach, Gary Yates, has remarked that he is getting better and better.

Whatever Flintoff's fate, one record looks set to fall at Old Trafford: Lancashire's Steven Croft is set for his 96th consecutive Twenty20 appearance, which is record in professional cricket in England and Wales.

Flintoff's short stint as a professional boxer - one victory against the American Richard Dawson at the MEN Arena 20 months ago - has been put down as a contributory factor in his cricketing comeback.

Flintoff's friend and agent, former Lancashire and England batsman Neil Fairbrother, said this week: "The fitness levels which he got out of boxing have enabled him to run in and bowl again without the pain and stiffness he used to have. He has realised his body is up to the task. I just think it will be an amazing experience for everybody in the crowd as and when he plays for Lancashire again."

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo