Andrew Flintoff could make his Test comeback as part of a four-man attack against New Zealand at Lord's on May 15, after England's captain, Michael Vaughan, told The Times that he was in favour of throwing his allrounder back into international cricket as a No. 7 batsman and out-and-out strike bowler.
Vaughan's preference is a significant change of tack from the last time the two played a Test together, back in 2005. That year, Flintoff was trusted as a top-six batsman and formed part of a five-man attack that proved instrumental in winning back the Ashes. In his absence, however, England have discovered through the efforts of Ryan Sidebottom and Monty Panesar in particular, that there is scope for winning Test matches with only four bowlers.
"For a long time I was a fan of five bowlers, but since we've had to do without Fred, I've realised that whilst five might be ideal, it is certainly possible to do with four in Test cricket," Vaughan told The Times. "That's the way I'm looking right now. Most other Test teams have a No. 6 who averages 45 in Test cricket, so I'm looking at Flintoff at seven and four bowlers."
There are fears that Flintoff, who has already undergone four bouts of surgery on his troublesome left ankle, might struggle to maintain his fitness if required to shoulder a full quota of overs in a Test match. But he has wasted no time in re-establishing his bowling credentials, and against Somerset at Old Trafford last week, he put the wind up his old Ashes foe, Justin Langer, to such an extent that Langer hailed him as "the best fast bowler in the world" in his BBC column.
"If I was the sole selector of the England Test team, Andrew Flintoff could bat at No. 11 if it meant playing him," Langer wrote. "There have been whispers that he needs to score runs to scrape into the England line-up. But I have never known Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh or Glenn McGrath having to score runs to be selected."
A similar thought process seems to have taken hold in the England set-up. "He hasn't played [at No. 6] for a long time, and for Fred, his bowling rhythm comes much more naturally than his batting," said Vaughan, who remains convinced that the runs will start to flow once again. "The only problem with four bowlers is that it asks a lot of his fitness, which we'll find out about over the next few months, and it asks more of Monty Panesar, who might have to bowl, say, 25 overs on a first-day pitch, but I've got no worries about him."
Part of Vaughan's urgency stems from his desire to equip his team with a genuine fast bowler ahead of what promises to be a high-octane clash with South Africa later in the summer. In Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, the South Africans have two of the fastest and most exciting bowlers in the game today, and for all the strides made by Sidebottom and Stuart Broad in New Zealand, England currently lack a cutting edge to match.
That is especially true given the enduring shortcomings of Steve Harmison, and Vaughan didn't give the impression that a comeback would be on the cards in the near future. "It's unbelievably frustrating from a captain's point of view," he said. "I've had him when he's been the best bowler in the world, and I've had him when he's been ... [not the best]. I just don't want to see that talent go to waste."
One man who wouldn't relish an early recall for Flintoff would be New Zealand's captain, Daniel Vettori, who mulled over the prospect after arriving in England from the IPL on Thursday. "He's one of the better players in the world, so if he's not playing it makes it a little bit easier for us," said Vettori. "But it may be hard for him to find a place in the team at the moment because the top-six batsmen have done a pretty good job.
"I'm sure they'll take the cautious approach, slowly build him into their team and maybe look at the South Africa series," he added. "We understand how good a player he is and what balance he offers because we have the same luxury with Jacob Oram and any time he's out of our team it's a real struggle for us."