Alarm bells over Fred not Ian

Flintoff's one-day series form is fine, his fitness is not – but England's No 3 turns a corner
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The Independent Online

Two down, only five to go and England are still in there fighting. The travelling circus, other-wise known as the NatWest Series, goes north this week before turning round again and heading south, which by then it might be doing in all senses.

There were times at Bristol on Friday night when it seemed that India's innings, let alone this damnably protracted series, might never end. It lasted for more than four hours, the break between innings was thus contracted to 10 minutes and yesterday England's captain and players paid the penalty for slow over-rates.

Paul Collingwood was fined 50 per cent of his match fee (£1,000) and the rest of the team 15 per cent for a Level Two breach of the code of conduct. There were mitigating circumstances for the interminable nature of proceedings: running medical repairs to India's batsmen, most notably Sachin Tendulkar; the Bristol public's apparent belief that sightscreens were invented for the sole purpose of walking in front of; and England's quirky decision to select an all-seam attack.

But the length of time taken in a form of the game meant to be quickfire was still unconscionable, and England could consider themselves fortunate that referee Roshan Mahanama considered them to be culpable for only three overs' worth of overtime. Getting on with it is an integral part of the limited-overs form and the most confident teams do it with knobs on.

The surrender of a few bob will not be of serious concern, though Collingwood must avoid becoming a serial offender. The appearance before the beak might have deflected attention from a potentially more serious source of debilitation. There have been plenty of good things for England in the opening two matches – although they have insisted they do not want to be judged until after the end of the seven matches, apparently some time in September – and they would doubtless have settled for 1-1 at this stage.

Not the least good thing, of course, has been the return of Andrew Flintoff. In a bowling sense he has been a prince coming back to reclaim his throne. In his first one-day internationalon home soil for 25 months at the Rose Bowl on Tuesday he took 1 for 12 from seven overs and was right on the button at around 90mph. In the second in Bristol he took 5 for 56, his best one-day figures.

The buts kicked in towards the close. Flintoff disappeared briefly because of stiffness behind his right knee, and not long afterwards clattered into an advertising hoarding with his left knee. In his final two overs there was a definite grimace after he released the ball. The management said yesterday that a scan had revealed mild inflammation. Having made light of it the previous night, theye were forced to call up Jon Lewis as cover.

Flintoff's illustrious career has been littered with reassurances about his fitness which were shown to be overconfident or misleading. It would be equally misleading to be melodramatic about his state of fitness now, but there is too much previous to avoid being cautious. His bowling is titanic and totemic. If Flintoff takes England's bowling into a different dimension, this has also been a significant week for a key element of their batting (no, not Dimitri Mascarenhas's thumping 50 at No 8, which should ensure his retention). Ian Bell began this series with his place under threat. While he has been messed about slightly, shunted between opener and No 3, the criticism of his lack of a hundred anywhere was growing.

Bell rectified the omission in some style at the Rose Bowl, and while the sequel of 64 in Bristol was less compelling, he looked and sounded like a player who had turned a corner. "I knew this was crunch time for me, because I had been given so many chances high up the order," he said. "I have thought long and hard about my one-day batting."

He might still be in the wrong position at No 3. There remains a case for Kevin Pietersen coming in there and Bell moving up to opener instead of Matthew Prior. To his credit, Prior has kept wicket almost pristinely, but it is still a great deal to ask of him to open.

On Friday, having kept wicket for 50 overs and four hours, he had 10 minutes to prepare to bat. In the event his 33 from 28 balls was a minor triumph, and showed that England intended to pursue their chase of 329 wholeheartedly. However, his one-day scores this summer of 34, 52, 1, 19 and 33 can elicit only the mildest of approval. He is not yet Gilchristian. Still, the end of this series is the time for judgement.

It is difficult to imagine England omitting Monty Panesar from their side again. But it was difficult to imagine them doing so on Friday when they did precisely that. There were some cricketing reasons for it, and India's captain, Rahul Dravid, graciously insisted he understood them: small ground, flat pitch, the tourists' adeptness against spin. But it did not work. England used seven bowlers, all of them right-arm seamers of slightly different varieties.

Of course, spinners do not have a place in every match, but Gloucestershire used one, often two, in 50-over Friends Provident Trophy matches in Bristol this summer, and presumably they know the ground.

India, too, used two spinners, and the presence of Ramesh Powar and Piyush Chawla won them the game. Collingwood pointed out afterwards that they had gone for 43 and 60 runs respectively, but in the context of the match this amounted to respectability. England played them miserably.

The four wickets they took between them clinched the deal. It was a piece of optimistic but naïve selection by England. Panesar has not been as effective so far in one-day cricket as he has been in Test matches – he has still played only 31 games in all – but the only way he can learn and adapt is by playing everywhere.

To stay in contention, England must win either at Edgbaston tomorrow or Old Trafford on Thursday. Panesar has to help them do it.