Angus Fraser: Survival a tall order for England with captain's short spells

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The Independent Online

The cautious and restrictive way in which Andrew Flintoff used himself during Australia's mammoth first-innings total of 602 for 9 may increase his chances of playing in the fifth Test at Sydney, but it will do little to help England's Ashes defence. The England bowlers, with the exception of the captain, have been inconsistent and tentative in Brisbane, factors that should have led to Flintoff bowling far more overs than he did in Australia's first innings.

Yet this has not been the case. Flintoff's figures of 4 for 99 in 30 overs stand out like an Aussie at a garden party. He was the only bowler who consistently troubled Australia's top order and he should have bowled a greater percentage of the 155 overs England sent down. Two operations on a troublesome left ankle, and the threat of further problems ending his career as a fast bowler, has caused the circumspect approach but this is not the stage where a player can gently ease his way back to fitness.

This is the 2006-07 Ashes and these, if the hype is to be believed, are the most important Test matches in which the majority of the England side are ever likely to play. It is not the time to protect players in bubble wrap. England needed to start the series strongly. They needed to hit Australia hard and in order to do this they needed 11 fit players who could throw themselves into the fray. But here are England nursing their most important player, along with Stephen Harmison, James Anderson and Ashley Giles, back to health.

Match situations dictate how many overs a bowler should bowl, not a sick note from a physiotherapist. Flintoff bowled through an entire session against Australia at the Oval in 2005 and the team that walked out at the Gabba on Thursday should have been capable of handling any workload placed before them.

It is to be hoped that this series is still alive when the teams arrive in Sydney for the fifth Test in January, but if Australia are 2-0 or 3-0 up by then it is irrelevant whether Flintoff is fully fit or not, the Ashes will have gone. To me there is no more important game than the one that you are playing in, not the one in six weeks' time, but here we seemingly have Flintoff attempting to compete with the best side in the world with a handbrake on.

There are those who will argue that it is better to have Flintoff in his current state than not at all. It is a view that should not be ignored, but in the past 48 hours it has been infuriating to watch Flintoff bowl himself in short spells. The all-rounder's 30 overs have been bowled in eight spells. The most demanding was just five overs in length and Flintoff bowled only 16 of the initial 104 overs England bowled in the Test.

No one can ever accuse Flintoff of shirking or not giving his all when he has a cricket ball in his hand, but the way in which he has limited his overs must have brought joy to Australia's dressing-room. It has played a part in allowing the hosts to ease their way in to such a dominant position.

Apprehension about overuse caused the 28-year-old to delay his introduction in to the attack on both the first and second mornings. On each occasion Australia were able to play themselves in against Harmison, Hoggard and Anderson before the man they fear most took the ball. It made facing Flintoff a less fearsome challenge. On Thursday Australia had reached 51 without loss when Flintoff marked out his run-up and yesterday the hosts added a further 43 runs to their total before the big man came on. On each day he took a wicket within four overs of coming on to bowl. If England had been able to do this in the eighth over of each day rather than the 19th they would not be needing 403 runs to avoid the follow-on.

Ball of the Day

* Matthew Hoggard's third ball from round the wicket rapped Adam Gilchrist on the pads, brought an upraised finger and was a reminder of happier times - especially coming as it did minutes after he had trapped Ponting leg before for 196.

Shot of the Day

* Tail-ender Stuart Clark's merry lofted drive for six off James Anderson. A fluke? Hardly - he repeated it for good measure the next ball and went on to make 39. It was exactly how No 10s jolly well should bat.

Debate of the Day

* Ponting was given not out caught behind on 167 off a Flintoff brute. Fair enough but 'Hotspot' - the all-singing, all-dancing new telly gizmo - could not provide a definitive verdict, giving rise to the suggestion that the producers were protecting the Australia captain.

Moment of the Day

* Andrew Strauss's unnecessary pull shot against Glenn McGrath behind square leg, with the total on 28, was ill-conceived, poorly executed and reaped what it sowed - his dismissal for a pitiful 12 runs.

Stephen Brenkley