Flintoff fitness England’s burning Ashes problem

England head into the second Test against Australia as yet uncertain over whether all-rounder Andrew Flintoff will feature in their bid for a first Ashes win at Lord’s in 75 years.

The 31-year-old injured his right knee while fielding in last week’s drawn first Test in Cardiff, having had an operation on after tearing the meniscus in April while playing in the Indian Premier League.

So vital to the balance of England’s side, injuries have meant Flintoff has rarely hit the same heights as he did when starring during the team’s 2005 Ashes-winning series.

But he still looked the only England pace bowler able to combat a slow surface at Sophia Gardens where Australia were only denied a victory by a last-wicket stand lasting 40 minutes between James Anderson and Monty Panesar.

It was somewhat overshadowed by a ‘time-wasting’ row revolving around the home team’s questionable use of the 12th man late on the final day.

England have called up in-form fast bowler Stephen Harmison, who in 2005 at Lord’s struck Australia captain Ricky Ponting a fearful blow on the cheek, ostensibly as cover for Flintoff.

But Harmison, who could be competing with fellow Durham paceman Graham Onions for a place in a re-shaped attack, may yet find himself playing alongside Flintoff if his friend proves his bowling fitness on Wednesday and suffers no ill-effects before Thursday’s start.

England coach Andy Flower was cautiously upbeat about Flintoff’s chances, saying Tuesday: ”He saw the surgeon that operated on his knee recently and he was quite optimistic about him playing in this game.

”The suggestion is that he should be okay but I think with Fred and his injury record we’re always concerned, to be honest,” said Flower of Flintoff, who has had a cortisone injection.

”His body’s in that sort of state at this time of his career when he seems vulnerable a lot of the time and we can’t get away from that but he’s a hell of a player and we want him in our side when he’s fit.”

Harmison took six wickets for England Lions during their tour match against Australia and twice dismissed fledgling opener Phillip Hughes with short balls in the process.

An inconsistent performer, Harmison was dropped during this year’s tour of the West Indies and has not played for England since.

However, Flower stressed: ”I never drew any line under Steve, that was never the case at all.

”Steve was always in the frame, he’s a very good fast bowler and has a very good record for England, so he was always in the frame in our minds.”

England captain Andrew Strauss is known to favour a five-man attack and, having seen his bowlers manage just six wickets between them as Australia piled up 674 in Cardiff, will not want to lack for options in the field.

But if Flintoff is ruled out and replaced by a bowler that would mean England had lengthened their tail.

Alternatively, they could bring back batsman Ian Bell.

But after a first Test where three England batsmen got to fifty but did not go on to a century in a match where Australia scored four hundreds, Flower and the selectors may give the top order a collective chance to redeem themselves.

”Certainly, batting-wise we didn’t cash in when we had the opportunities and bowling-wise we found it hard to put them under pressure,” Flower said

But he took some heart from England’s rearguard action, saying: ”We were outplayed but we take a bit of confidence from the fight we showed.”

Star batsman Kevin Pietersen, who top-scored for England with 69, was widely criticised for getting out sweeping to Australia off-spinner Nathan Hauritz but Flower said the South Africa-born shotmaker should not carry the can for the side’s lack of runs.

”I don’t think you can just isolate him even though I know he’s the most high-profile batsman.”

Australia, who saw Ponting lead from the front in Wales with a superb 150, have not lost a Test at Lord’s since 1934.

They are again set to be without fast bowler Brett Lee, ruled out in Cariff because of a rib injury.

The Ashes holders may well stick with the same side although seam bowler Stuart Clark could come into contention.

Form and history favour Australia and, as their similarly defiant last-wicket stand at Old Trafford four years ago, which was followed by an England win, showed, a battling draw is no guarantee of future success.

”We played exceptionally well throughout the first Test,” said Hauritz.

”The batting was outstanding and we took 19 wickets.”

How England would like to be able to say the same. — AFP



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Julian Guyer
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