Andrew Flintoff is still targeting the first Test against New Zealand starting on May 15 as his return to the England team as he prepares to begin the domestic season with Lancashire following his fourth ankle operation. He is due to play two matches against Yorkshire next week before the opening Championship fixture at The Oval.
Flintoff had the surgery in October and hasn't appeared in a first-class match since August - his last Test was against Australia in Sydney 15 months ago - so the selectors will be wary of jumping the gun at a recall until his body has proved it can stand the rigours of constant bowling, especially with the first two Tests being back-to-back. Flintoff, though, is keen to push for his place in the first part of the season rather than wait until the one-dayers against New Zealand or the South Africa series.
"There's a Test match [against New Zealand] that I'd loved to be involved in," he said. "I've missed a lot of international cricket through injury and I don't want to miss any more, or as little as I have to, but I'm under no illusions that to get back into the side I'm going to have to be fit and playing well. That starts against Yorkshire and then the first Championship game. I'd love to put my name in the hat, but even if I am playing well they have just come off two wins so it's not assured. I'd just like to be in the mix up."
Flintoff's comeback has followed a measured regime laid out by the ECB and Lancashire. He has never been a player who gives less than 100%, whether his body is allowing him or not, and he has sometimes needed to be told when to stop. "He'll say 'I'm feeling good can I do 20 more minutes'," Mike Watkinson, the Lancashire coach, said, "but we have to say no, that's what you are doing today. Come back another time and do it again."
Flintoff's workload is outlined up to the end of the second Championship match against Somerset. There won't be any restrictions imposed on his overs although Watkinson did say they would be sensible. "I don't see him bowling 25 overs a day but he'll be out there and be a squad player like the rest of them. The limit in the games will be common sense and the match situation will dictate. You'll probably see him bowling five-, six-over spells and no more than two or two-and-a-half spells a day."
Lancashire have had a close relationship with the ECB during Flintoff's rehabilitation, something which has been appreciated by his club, who haven't always seen eye-to-eye with how England players are handled, especially under the previous management. "It's been teamwork really and it's nice that we are trusted to look after Fred on a daily basis," Watkinson said. "It hasn't been an entirely free rein but we have done what we feel is right for Fred and we are mindful that his introduction into cricket, and bowling in particular, has to be gradual."
Since Christmas Flintoff has been through warm-weather training in South Africa, and spent time in India with the England Lions and Lancashire Academy. He returned to action during the pre-season trip to Dubai last month where he enjoyed "feeling emotions that I hadn't had for a while. Being nervous when I went out to bat and the excitement of being out on the field."
He'd been expected to feature for MCC against Sussex next week, but after discussions between Lancashire and the ECB it was felt to follow that four-day game with the Championship outing against Surrey would be too much. He has been operating in five-over bursts in the nets - "he's bowled with some good gas" according to Watkinson - and says he won't be holding back when the serious action begins.
"I'm aiming to start the season bowling a full pelt whenever the captain asks me," Flintoff said. "At such a late stage it would be foolish to push it too much now, but Mike Watkinson and Dave Roberts [his physio] have got a programme and I ask Winker [Watkinson] on a daily basis what I'm doing and I just get on with it. I've probably been bowling five to eight overs a day. Everyone has been talking about working at 70-80% but I reckon I'm not far off bowling flat out."
His latest ankle surgery was carried out by Dutch surgeon Niek van Dijk after the World Twenty20 in September when bowling caused obvious pain. This time a chuck of bone was removed which Flintoff hopes will bring permanent relief and allow him to recapture the form that made him the No. 1 allrounder in the world.
At times, especially during the pain he was suffering last year, Flintoff's ankle occupied his mind whatever he was doing on the field. "I think the batting suffered more than the bowling. Batting with an ankle which was sore meant I wasn't able get through my shots. And at times, too, all I was thinking about was my ankle and where I am going to go from here."
Although Flintoff has his eyes on the opening Test at Lord's he is also learning from the past experiences of rushing the recovery process. "We've made a concerted effort this time not to rush things," he said. "There's been nothing like in the past when there has been an Ashes or a World Cup to get back for and this time we have taken our time and got it right."
However, even Flintoff concedes that he won't be able to shed all doubt until the repaired joint has undergone some serious work. "I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a small niggle at the back of my mind after four operations, but that's inevitable, and I just hope that if you ask me in July with 150-200 overs under my belt that I'm still alright. I've been OK coming back from the other operations for a few weeks, but this time hopefully I will be fine, not for weeks but years." The next few months will prove whether time really has been a great healer.