Strauss wants Flintoff to 'go out in a blaze of glory'
Andrew Flintoff did not bowl during England's final practice session at The Oval on Wednesday, but whereas at Headingley that might have been taken as cause for alarm, this time around it is nothing more than a precaution. On Thursday morning, barring a late and unexpected set-back, Flintoff and his dodgy right knee will front up for England for one final time in Test cricket, with the Ashes on the line and his legacy up for grabs.
"He's looking very promising to be fair," said England's captain, Andrew Strauss. "The swelling's gone right down on his knee and he bowled really well yesterday. Obviously he's particularly motivated to play in this Test match. Things are looking good on that front. We just have to be absolutely certain tomorrow morning that it doesn't react, but at this stage it's looking very, very positive."
In Leeds, Flintoff wanted to play but was over-ruled by Strauss and Andy Flower, an unpopular decision for the allrounder and one that became more serious as Australia levelled the series at 1-1 in three days. Strauss spoke to Flintoff about his frustration, which seeped out via his manager the day after the Headingley defeat, and "it's not an issue between us".
"You can understand why he'd be disappointed," Strauss said. "It's his last couple of Test matches so he's dying to play. I spoke to Fred after the Headingley Test match, and we both know where each other stood on that matter. Some of the stuff that has been said has been quite a long way off the mark, to be honest. I'm certainly very excited to have him back in the team for this Test match. He's determined to do well for the team, and I know that he is as motivated as anyone to do well for England this week."
Flintoff's knee was covered by a guard during training on Tuesday and at times he looked like he was about to hobble, but he was happy during his workout and smiled as he signed autographs for supporters at the end of the session. All England followers want him to depart with the Ashes at the conclusion of his 79th Test and Flintoff-watch is reaching its peak.
Moments after Flintoff's retirement announcement at Lord's last month, Ricky Ponting warned that England's Ashes focus could be distracted by Cirque Du Fred as the summer rolled on. On Thursday, addressing the media on the other side of the Thames, the Australian captain did not miss his opportunity to reinforce the point ahead of the all-important Ashes decider.
"Whenever he comes onto bowl or comes into bat the whole crowd gets behind him, but with that I guess there'll be extra pressure on him as well, " Ponting said. "Playing his last game and knowing it's such a big game, an important game for the England team, extra pressures will come with that. We'll see how he fares up over the next five days.
"We won't know until then end of the game. We won't know until we see how he handles it and how the whole England team handle it. That's one thing they're going to have to worry about over the next few days. There will be some distractions there. If you read the papers today, it's all about Andrew going into the game. They'll have those things to deal with but that's not for us to worry about."
Strauss must ask himself whether the country knows if anyone else is playing for his team whenever he is flooded with questions about the allrounder. How's Fred? Will he play? How did he bowl? Any pain? Can you win with him? And without him? What about his batting? And his slip fielding? What did he have for lunch? How's his dog?
"That's the situation," Strauss said calmly. "It's his last couple of Test matches, he's obviously a massive player for us and we're very fortunate to have a guy of that quality in our side, especially a guy that tends to up his performances against Australia. Going into a must-win game like this I'm far more comfortable as captain seeing his name on the team sheet."
Flintoff was the key figure in the 2005 Ashes win as well as being captain for the 5-0 whitewash by Australia in the following series. There are a lot of older players seeking revenge at The Oval this week, with Flintoff wanting to recreate the feeling of four years ago and the Australians desperate to forget it.
England cannot allow the emotion of Flintoff's departure to sidetrack them and Strauss tried to downplay the notion they would be "doing it for Fred". They will broaden their goals for the match that will determine whether the bunting and tickertape is released on Monday or has to be saved for the London Olympics.
"We all want him to go out in a blaze of glory," Strauss said. "A lot of his scripts have been written that way so far in his career and that would be a fitting end to his Test career. But we want to win this game for the country, for the coaches, for all the hard work we've put in, as well as him. So I don't think we're solely motivated by that."
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo