Flintoff's fitness under the spotlight again
It was, on the face of it, a dull final day at Edgbaston - the least enthralling of the series so far, as England's slim victory prospects were thwarted almost as early as the first hour. But in Ashes cricket, nothing takes place without subtext, and as Australia's batsmen rumbled onwards against a toothless, swing-less attack, the state of Andrew Flintoff's fitness became a significant cause for concern.
A fortnight ago on the final day at Lord's, Flintoff produced the finest spell of his career - a ten-over rampage to seize the second Test and push England into the ascendancy in the series. Today, he was a pillion passenger at best, with just 11 laboured overs in the entire day, and none at all in the drifty final session. While he has rarely got the rewards his wholehearted style deserves, it is almost unheard of for him to go an entire Test without a single wicket - the last time it happened was in Perth in December 2006 when England surrendered the Ashes, and before that you have to rewind to July 2003.
Instead of one of the flamboyant celebrations that lit up Lord's, the enduring image of Flintoff's effort came when his left ankle crumpled in his delivery stride, midway through his second spell. Back-to-back contests are notoriously tough for fast bowlers at the best of times, but seeing as Flintoff endured two further injections in his ragged right knee just to take the field for this match, Friday's fourth Test at Headingley cannot come along quickly enough for Ricky Ponting's newly uplifted Australians.
"You could see he went downhill pretty quickly during the course of this game," said Ponting, "so his injury is probably taking more of an effect than we realise as well. But we'll see what happens on the morning of the game. It's been visible over the last couple of days, he's been struggling more than he did during the Lord's Test. When he bowled yesterday he was hobbling a bit and he only bowled 11 overs today. No doubt they protected him late this afternoon, knowing how big a figure he is for the team."
"There wasn't as much in this wicket for him as there has been on previous wickets," countered Andrew Strauss. "It was one of those wickets where the more you hit the deck, the slower it came off, and at the back of my mind I'm conscious that when the conditions aren't really helping him, there's no point in tearing him to death. There's obviously some soreness there, but I don't think anything has deteriorated massively over the course of the game. But he needs to rest up well because back-to-back Tests are hard for any bowler. We'll see how he is for Thursday."
The Flintoff factor is becoming a double-edged sword for England - Australia will continue to fear and respect him so long as he remains in the side, but it's becoming increasingly hard for the selectors to know how best to deal with such a talismanic figure. Though Strauss suggested that his momentum-seizing innings of 74 had been a bonus, the reality is that it muddied the waters even further. Had Flintoff merely been performing as a pace man, then Steve Harmison could step in at Headingley as a like-for-like replacement. Instead, to rest Flintoff on Friday with the Ashes up for grabs would risk unsettling the entire balance of the current team.
"If he's fit to play then we want to play him, if he's not, we won't, because the Headingley Test is a massive Test," said Strauss. "It's an opportunity to win the Ashes, and we want to play our best team in every game we play. But we've got to be conscious that if he's not fit enough to do his job, he won't play.
"He will be assessed tomorrow, and he knows what he needs to do with his injury," Strauss added. "A lot of it comes down to how he feels with his own body - he's got to be honest about that and he has been so far. He's obviously desperate to play in the last two games, and we're optimistic he'll be fine, but I think he realises that if he's not fit he won't help us."
England did everything they could to force Flintoff onto centre stage for this final day at Edgbaston - even, arguably, to the detriment of their own match prospects. When play resumed with a 28-over-old ball, all eyes turned naturally to the man who wrecked Australia's first innings, James Anderson who, like Ben Hilfenhaus, had found the best swing-bowling conditions around the 30-over mark, when the lacquer had started to come off the still-hard ball. Instead Flintoff galloped in for seven largely ineffectual overs, and when Anderson eventually struck with his sixth ball of the day, an hour into the session, the deficit had been written off and Australia were starting to feel comfortable at the crease.
"We weren't expecting it to swing straight away this morning, so we thought it important to set the tone and Fred's obviously very good at that," said Strauss, who felt that Graham Onions at the other end had served as a barometer for the moving ball. Ponting, however, expressed his surprise at the move. "The ball has started to swing at the exact time that England had [it] this morning," he said. "Flintoff was their best bowler at Lord's, but the wicket and conditions here, being slow, didn't suit his bowling as much, it suited Anderson and Onions more."
All of which adds up to a curious conundrum for England, who have shown a worrying lack of penetration at three crucial moments of all three Tests. When the ball swings, as it has done in the first innings at Lord's and on the second morning at Edgbaston, the bowlers - principally Anderson - have filled their boots with alacrity. But in Australia's only innings at Cardiff, and then for long and untroubled spells in the second innings of the next two Tests, they have rumbled along with barely a moment's alarm, as the series century count - currently 6-1 in their favour - amply testifies.
"When a wicket's flat, it's flat, and it's very hard to conjure something out of nothing," said Strauss, which is why Flintoff's bone-jarring performance at Lord's stands out for the manner in which it bucked the trend. But for that very reason, there is simply no point in playing him if he is anything less than 100% fit. England, to give them their due, have said that all throughout this saga, but at the same time, it will take a gutsy call to withdraw him so close to the finishing line, with absolutely everything at stake - including his own legacy in Test retirement.
"I think we can cope without him," said Strauss. "We've had to do it a number of times in the last two years, so it wouldn't be anything new to us. Generally the bowlers have stepped up when he hasn't played, but at the moment he's in great nick with both ball and bat, so we don't want to play without him if we can help it. You have to swing with the punches you get, and if [he's unfit] we've got a good enough squad to be able to deal with that."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo