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February 18, 2009
"Help your mates out," Andrew Flintoff pleaded to the England squad as they prepared for the second Test. Normally it is him bailing the team out of trouble, but on the fourth day at the Antigua Recreation Ground he really needed his mates to take the strain. A labouring Flintoff, suffering from a hip injury, managed just three overs in the second innings, but the others stuck to their task as England chipped towards a series-levelling victory that appeared a world away from the Kingston debacle.
"I'm not going to lie to you and say everything is all right because there's a problem there. Hopefully we can do it for him," said Steve Harmison, one of Flintoff's closest friends. "He's been our go-to man for long periods of time, but it's our chance to say thanks very much. I've been in those situations before [bowling with injury], you are basically bowling for your mates to give the rest a bit of a rest."
Alarm bells ring whenever Flintoff grimaces and it has been clear over the last couple of days that all is not quite right. He seemed in good health on the second evening when he steamed in after England declared, but yesterday he lacked his usual spark although through force of character, and sheer hard work, still managed three wickets.
As England chased quick runs he dropped down the batting order to No. 9, when he should have been going the opposite direction. Finally the ECB came out with the official line that he was suffering from "hip soreness", but Harmison's comments suggest it is more than soreness. His innings was a painful affair before he chipped a catch to midwicket, bagging his third pair in Tests, and even in the nine-ball stay his movement was hindered.
Then, in the field, he was decidedly creaky and failed to bend down to one delivery that scuttled past him. But you knew, as sure as day turns to night, that he would give bowling a go if asked by Andrew Strauss. Sure enough he came on in the 23rd over to put his body through more pain. His first ball was 78mph and generally he was four miles-per-hour down on his first innings spell.
"What the problem is I think we'll have to wait until the end of the match," Harmison said. "Where he goes from here nobody knows, but hopefully he can be fit for Barbados. But the big lad is in a bit of pain and it shows the character he has that he even attempted to go out on the field."
With Flintoff having problems, England's selection adjustment to recall Harmison in place of Ryan Sidebottom proved a shrewd move. Harmison, who also admitted the team were "embarrassed" by what happened in Jamaica, doesn't have an outstanding set of results so far, but he has given Strauss another back-of-a-length option. His burst that eventually accounted for Devon Smith showed promise as the arms pumped hard from the Pavilion End. He, too, has had to battle through illness in this match and he admitted he still wasn't right.
"I was at death's door yesterday, struggling after about five balls," he said. "The first time I went off I was sick and after that the heat did me. It completely drained me; I didn't come out until lunchtime today. I was asleep on the floor. I didn't feel very strong out there. I've not eaten much in the last few days which for me is difficult."
Given these issues, the caution from Strauss in setting West Indies a massive 503 was understandable. Four Tests ago England failed to defend 387 in Chennai, while West Indies hold the world record for a successful chase of 418 on this ground. Richie Benaud used to talk of the differences between a declaration and a closure, and this was definitely the latter from Strauss.
However, given how much time was left in the game, it was unlikely Strauss would opt for a bold and aggressive declaration, but it's these little moments that can give an insight into the mindset of a dressing room. England have controlled this game throughout, yet this is a team still trying regain the art of winning, unlike the 2004-05 unit where it came as second nature. There is a temptation to give them an extra cushion, just in case something goes wrong; in case Harmison has a bad day, in case James Anderson loses his line or in case Flintoff is injured.
Then there is the opposition to consider. It is only two months ago that Virender Sehwag tore the England attack to pieces with his 68-ball 83 in Chennai, which proved a vital factor in India's success. The onslaught knocked the stuffing out of the bowlers and of the current outfit only Stuart Broad escaped the defeat. Facing them in this game was Chris Gayle, someone equally capable of an innings of such destruction, so the buffer of 500 meant that even if Gayle had launched a blitz, the panic shouldn't have set in. As it was, Gayle was fairly subdued, but the delight on England's faces when he was trapped lbw showed how key his wicket was.
Negative thoughts would never enter the mind of a side that has tasted regular success, but England's recent diet has largely been humbling defeats. A good final day here and that slide can be, at least temporarily, arrested. And there will be no one happier than Flintoff even if he can't play a key role. He'll be the first to buy his mates a drink.