England v Australia, 2nd npower Test, Lord's July 14, 2009

Flower optimistic about Flintoff's fitness

Andy Flower, England's coach, is optimistic that Andrew Flintoff will be fit to play in the second Test at Lord's, starting on Thursday, despite reporting soreness and swelling in his right knee after falling awkwardly in the field during last week's first Test in Cardiff.

Given his recent injury problems, which have forced Flintoff to miss 25 of England's 48 Test matches since the 2005 Ashes, the news of his latest injury setback had been greeted with concern, especially as the injured knee was the same one that required surgery back in April, after Flintoff tore his meniscus while playing for Chennai Superkings in the IPL.

Flower, however, sought to play down the extent of the latest injury, and told reporters at Lord's that Flintoff's surgeon, Dr Derek Bickerstaff, had suggested "he should be okay to play", having received a cortisone injection on Monday to assist with the recovery.

"He [Bickerstaff] was quite optimistic about him [Flintoff] playing in this game," said Flower. "He won't bowl today, but he'll have a bat and he'll have a bowl tomorrow, and we'll assess it tomorrow. We'll let it settle today."

Despite finishing with disappointing figures of 1 for 128 in 35 overs, Flintoff bowled with pace and hostility in his first Test outing of the summer in Cardiff, and with his batting showing signs of returning consistency, England still retain the hope that he might yet rediscover the form that made him such an irresistible force in the 2005 Ashes.

Nevertheless, Flower was wary of getting too hopeful about his long-term fitness. "I think with Fred and his injury record we're always concerned, to be honest," he said. "His body is in that sort of state, at this time of his career, when he seems vulnerable a lot of the time. We can't get away from that, but he's a hell of a player and we want him in our side if fit."

The statistics of Flintoff's recent form and impact on the Test side, however, are not flattering. Since the 2005 Ashes, he has averaged 28.25 with the bat and 34.68 with the ball in 23 Tests (both figures down on his overall Test record), and he has not managed a century or five wickets in an innings in any series since then.

Most damning of all, however, is his record as a match-winner. Although some leeway has to be made for the quality of the opponents - Flintoff has often been recuperating during low-key series in preparation for the marquee events - the statistics paint a sorry tale. In the 25 matches that Flintoff has missed since 2005, England have won 12, drawn 10 and lost on only three occasions. In the 23 matches in which he has been present, those numbers are almost exactly reversed - won 3, drawn 7, lost 13.

What is more, there is a growing suspicion that the unpredictable nature of Flintoff's fitness record has an adverse impact on the balance of the side, and the role of the less-vaunted players. James Anderson, for instance, who recently admitted it is hard to avoid feeling like a second-fiddle when Flintoff is in the side, averages nearly 10 runs higher when his Lancashire team-mate is also in England's bowling attack.

Flower, however, does not have any time for suggestions that Flintoff's comings and goings unsettle his team-mates. "I don't think that's something that should distract any of our boys, whether or not Fred's playing," he said. "The guys will just get on and prepare, as professional sportsmen do. Frustrating or not, that's how it is, there's no point in getting too het up about it."

In the meantime, Flintoff could either be replaced by, or joined in the same line-up as, Steve Harmison, who was understood to have frustrated the England management with his poor fitness and attitude on their recent tour of the Caribbean. His form this summer brooks no equivocation, with six wickets in a fiery performance for England Lions against Australia at Worcester earlier this month, and a five-wicket haul for Durham in his most recent Championship outing against Yorkshire.

Despite suggestions that Flower had been the most ardent critic of Harmison's attitude, he disputed it on the eve of the second Test. "I never drew any line under Steve, that wasn't the case at all," he said. "If that was the perception elsewhere, there's nothing I can do about it. Steve was always in the frame, because he's a hell of a fast bowler with a very good record for England."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo