Australia's captain Ricky Ponting believes that England will be taking a massive gamble if they risk playing a half-fit Andrew Flintoff in the Ashes later this summer, and offered a veiled criticism of the decisions of both Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen to take part in the recently concluded Indian Premier League in South Africa.
Facing the media at Trent Bridge following the Australian squad's arrival in England on Thursday morning, Ponting spoke of how "relaxed and rejuvenated" he felt after opting out of the IPL and taking a four-week break from the game, and suggested that in hindsight England's star players might have been better off following his example.
Instead, Flintoff is facing an anxious race against the clock after requiring surgery on a knee injury sustained while playing for the Chennai Super Kings at the IPL, while Pietersen, who captained Bangalore Royal Challengers in the opening rounds, last week missed his first international cricket for two years when he decided to rest an Achilles injury during the ODI series against West Indies.
Flintoff and Pietersen each fetched US$1.55 million at this year's IPL auction, and with that sort of outlay, Ponting said he understood why they decided to take part in the tournament. "There was obviously a great incentive for those guys to go and play with the amount of money they went for and I guess they were always coming back from the IPL early for the Test matches.
"But for us it was a great opportunity to step away from cricket for a few weeks and make sure we're in the best shape we could be in," he added. "For me it was pretty simple, it was about how long our summer was and how much cricket we played. It was a good opportunity for me to have a couple of weeks off cricket and make sure that when I got here for the start of this tournament I was in the best physical and mental shape I could be."
Ponting's men arrived in the country with considerably less fanfare than their predecessors in 2005, which is understandable given the retirement of big names such as Adam Gilchrist, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. But the youthful verve of a squad made up largely of the team that beat South Africa on home soil in March will, in Ponting's estimation, have a significant advantage over their wearier English opponents.
And no-one seems wearier right now than Flintoff, who was England's main man in the 2005 triumph, but was at the helm 18 months later when Australia recaptured the Ashes with a 5-0 whitewash Down Under. After recently undergoing knee surgery, he was withdrawn from the World Twenty20 squad earlier this week, and now has little more than a month in which to prove his fitness, starting with a County Championship fixture for Lancashire at Liverpool on June 17.
"That's going to be the great decision the England selectors are going to have to make come the first Test," said Ponting. "Flintoff is obviously very important to their make-up and set-up. Maybe, as we saw in 2007, if he's not 100% fit then maybe that sort of impact he can have around the team is not there.
"From 2005 to 2007 we saw two completely different players and that had a lot to do with the level of fitness that he had under his belt going into each series. That's where they're going to have a tough decision to make.
"I don't know where Pietersen's at at the moment, I'm not sure how bad his problem is, but they could face something similar there as well."