A nation's focus rests on Freddie's dodgy knee

England's talisman faces an uncertain run-up to the third Ashes Test

For the next three days, all of England will be hanging on any sliver of information about the state of Andrew Flintoff's knee.

It is possible that solemn hourly bulletins will be issued on its progress and that the entire nation may be urged to offer up prayers that it will be all right on the day. That day, of course, is Thursday, the first of the Third npower Test against Australia, although Flintoff will need to demonstrate no later than Wednesday that he can once again battle his way through the pain to withstand the rigours of five consecutive days of intensive cricket.

He was one of 13 players named in the squad yesterday. There will be one necessary change, Ian Bell coming in for Kevin Pietersen, who was forced last week to withdraw from the rest of the series after Achilles surgery. Although the composition of the batting is certain, its order is not.

Bell may bat at four, he may not if Ravi Bopara is considered too flaccid at three. By again picking four seam bowlers and two spinners, the selectors have given themselves plenty of bowling options.

The attention, however, will be on Flintoff, as in rugby union it is usually on Johnny Wilkinson or, in football, on David Beckham. Canonised figures all, and all with dodgy bodies. Flintoff was always likely to be important to this Ashes campaign, which is why he spent so long working his way back to fitness from various injuries in the two years before it.

When he decided on the eve of the last match at Lord's that he would give up Test cricket after this series, his significance multiplied. And when he charged gloriously in to take five Australian wickets at Lord's to seal a historic victory for England it went off the how-important-can-one-player-be-to-a-team scale.

England appear confident their bowling warrior can make it, but then, with their batting champion Pietersen already out and hobbling round on crutches, they were unlikely to be otherwise. In naming the squad, National Selector Geoff Miller said yesterday: "Andrew and the medical staff are quite bullish about his prospects of playing but we'll continue to monitor his progress in the days leading up to Thursday." So there is no certainty.

But Flintoff would drink pig swill and roll in a bed of thorns if he thought they would provide sufficient treatment. When he said last week that he wanted to play four more Test matches he meant four. But if he makes it on Thursday the odds on him playing the following Friday at Headingley will be slender. There will be only a three-day break and had that been the case after Lord's, Flintoff would have been nowhere near ready.

His participation in every match from hereon is hanging by a thread, or at least the fibre round the meniscus tear in his knee. The likelihood is that he will drag himself across the line in Birmingham, will have to forego Leeds and have one last hurrah at The Oval late next month.

The ideal scenario is that he should bowl like a tornado once more this week, propel England to victory and hope that they protect a 2-0 lead after that. The batting has assumed an air of brittleness, as it was bound to do without a man who has played 54 successive Test matches and scored 16 hundreds. Pietersen is still suffering from missing the rest of this series and talk of his finishing with Test cricket to throw in his lot with Twenty20 is poppycock.

"Devastated, heartbroken, gutted," said Pietersen yesterday with a typically dramatic flourish in an interview with Nasser Hussain on Sky Sports. "It really has hurt me a lot. I'm going to go and support the boys because I think that's important. To know that I can't be playing will kill me inside."

England have named no batting cover, and none of the mentioned possible replacements, Robert Key, Joe Denly, Jonathan Trott, or Michael Carberry are wholly convincing, but Key has found some form at last, Carberry is in the form of his life, and Denly is decreed in some quarters simply to have the right stuff. Trott, a South African who played for that country's under-19 team before throwing in his lot with Warwickshire on an EU passport, has scored three large hundreds this summer but when he has batted against better attacks, for England Lions against West Indies, for Warwickshire against England in the pre-Ashes practice and for Warwickshire against Durham, with Stephen Harmison and Graham Onions firing, he failed each time.But when the England caravan rolls into Birmingham tomorrow it is Freddie's Farewell Cavalcade that everyone will be watching.

England squad to face Australia at Edgbaston on Thursday; A N Strauss (c), A N Cook, R S Bopara, I R Bell, P D Collingwood, M J Prior (wkt),A Flintoff, S C Broad, G P Swann, JM Anderson, G Onions, S J Harmison, M S Panesar.

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