Andrew Flintoff has announced that he will retire from Test cricket at the end of this Ashes summer, although he still intends to make himself available for Twenty20 and ODI cricket, and is expected to be fit for tomorrow's second Test against Australia.
Flintoff, who has missed 25 of England's last 48 Tests through a variety of injuries, suffered another fitness scare on the eve of the Lord's Test, when he reported soreness and swelling in the same right knee that required surgery back in April, after he tore his meniscus while playing in the IPL.
"It's not something I have just thought of overnight, it's something that's been on my mind for a while regarding this series," said Flintoff. "With the knee flaring up again and getting the injections on Monday, now is a time I felt comfortable with doing it. There's been a lot of speculation over my future for the past few weeks, so I wanted to get it out there, and concentrate on playing cricket.
"I've had four ankle operations and knee surgery, so my body is telling me things, and I'm actually starting to listen. I can't just play games here and there while waiting to be fit. For my own sanity, and for my family's, I've got to draw a line under it. I've been going through two years of rehab in the past four, which is not ideal."
Prior to England's practice session on Wednesday morning, Flintoff gave the team talk in a sombre atmosphere, and afterwards Paul Collingwood immediately came up and shook him by the hand. "Freddie simply said that these four Tests would be his last in Test cricket," a team insider told Cricinfo. Andrew Strauss, the England captain, said the team were saddened, though not surprised, about Flintoff's decision to stand down from Test cricket.
"As players we've had a feeling this would come sooner rather than later," Strauss said. "We feel sad he's had to make this decision at his age, but we're sure it will motivate him even more for this series."
The knee injury that has threatened his participation at Lord's followed a spirited performance in the first Test at Cardiff, in which Flintoff bowled 35 overs but was once again under-rewarded with figures of 1 for 128. Strauss was optimistic on Wednesday that Flintoff will come through a fitness test and make himself available for selection, and he was seen skipping during England's warm-up in the indoor nets, before padding up for batting practice, then sending down a few pacey overs on the outdoor nets.
"The indications are that he's going to be fine," Strauss said. "He had a good bowl today, we just need to see how he reacts to what he did today before we can be 100% sure. At this stage we are hopeful but we can't be sure.
"When you go in with three seamers, you've got to expect all three to bowl a lot of overs. Fred understands that, but this week in all likelihood there will be four seamers and maybe [they] won't have quite as big a workload. We'd never play any bowler in a Test match who we didn't think could contribute as fully as anyone else."
Though he acknowledged that Flintoff's overall statistics do not bear greatness, Strauss lauded Flintoff's effect on the modern game.
"He's had a dramatic impact in English cricket over the past few years, in the style with which he's batted, and for a long period he's been one of the bowlers in world cricket that batters least like facing, although the figures maybe don't show that," Strauss said. "And also as a personality, he's done a huge amount for cricket in the way he's played with a smile on his face. Test cricket will miss him, there's no doubt about that. I'm sure he'll go out in a style that befits his quality, with a bang, with big performances, and with some stories to tell at the end."
Regardless of his immense stature in the England dressing-room, the statistics of Flintoff's recent form and impact on the Test side 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 of 31.69 and 32.51), and he has not managed a century or five wickets in an innings in any series since then.
Moreover, he has been unable to impose himself on matches in the same way that he did in his 2005 pomp. Although some leeway has to be made for the quality of the opponents he has faced - 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.
"Being part of an Ashes-winning team was very special, and so was beating everyone in the world for a period of time, and playing a major part in that," said Flintoff. "I'd have liked my career to kick on after that, but being a professional rehabber for two years makes it pretty difficult to do that. It would have been nice if it had carried on a bit longer, but I've no regrets. I'm happy."
Flintoff received a cortisone injection on Monday, and is sure to play through the pain if he has to. "For the next four Test matches I'll do everything I need to do to get on a cricket field and I'm desperate to make my mark," he said. "I want to finish playing for England on a high and if you look at the fixtures going forward, the way my body is suggests I won't be able to get through that."