England v Australia, 4th Test, Headingley, 3rd day August 9, 2009

The Flintoff conundrum

To pick him or not to pick him, that's still the question for England. Andrew Flintoff has become this series' Glenn McGrath, missing the Ashes Test which his side lost, and will spend the next week trying to prove he is capable of getting five more days out of his brittle knee.

Told by Andrew Strauss on the first morning he was not playing, Flintoff's future will be determined much earlier at The Oval, where England need him more than ever. However, any Flintoff appearance comes with conditions: he must be able to be able to bowl two spells a day and can't break down in his final Test before retirement.

He won't play as a specialist batsman despite the problems in the innings-and-80-run defeat at Headingley, which meant England have to win in south London to lift the urn. "Ideally we'll be in a better situation to get a result early for that final Test," Strauss said of Flintoff's condition. "Hopefully we'll know two or three days out whether he's fit or not."

Flintoff's late withdrawal from the team added to England's muddled moods on the opening day, when they were dropped for 102, and they also missed his ability to hurry the batsmen during Australia's confident first innings of 445. "He's still desperate to play in that final Test but he realises he's got to be fit enough," Strauss said. "I'm very hopeful he will."

Ricky Ponting said England could win without Flintoff but the task would be much harder. Flintoff is the only player in the home side that the Australians fear and they would say so if they knew he wasn't going to be available. "We prepared this week as if he was going to play," Ponting said, "and we will prepare for the next Test as if he's going to play as well."

England can't do that because Flintoff creates such significant changes in the side's balance and attitude. If he's out the hosts must consider picking a batsman at seven or keeping the bowler-heavy line-up that failed in Leeds. With a fitness clearance Flintoff clears up all their worries and can come back in for Steve Harmison.

"If he's going to play he's got to be fit to play his role and that's as an allrounder," Strauss said. "Maybe he doesn't need to bowl 28 overs a day but he's got to be able to bowl more than one spell. We felt for this game that he was unable to do that. But having had a couple of weeks' break, hopefully he's in a better position."

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo

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