Anxious England wait on Flintoff

Fears over all-rounder’s long-term fitness grow as he awaits news of injury scan

England formally launched their search for a new team director yesterday. This might be a fancy title for the coach, but whatever the head honcho is called the timing could hardly have been worse for Andy Flower.

Although he is still oddly entitled assistant coach (deputy team director presumably) he is effectively running the show in the West Indies, together with the captain, Andrew Strauss. And on the day the top job officially came up he had to explain why his side failed to win a Test match in which they were always ahead.

Make no mistake, it was a bitter blow to the tourists to be held to a draw in Antigua, defied for 10 overs by the opposition’s last-wicket pair until bad light intervened. From the first morning, England had controlled the match but at the last they were simply not shrewd enough, smart enough, clever enough or skilful enough to take the wicket which would have put them level in the series at 1-1. Maybe they were simply not quite good enough.

There were excuses. Rain delayed the start, their most threatening bowler Andrew Flintoff was badly debilitated by a hip injury despite a heroic, pain-defying burst late in the day, the pitch at the Antigua Recreation stayed flat and West Indies batted jolly well. But none could sufficiently explain the brutal truth that England took 128 overs to take nine wickets.

Flintoff had an MRI scan yesterday afternoon and the results will be known this afternoon. Flower indicated that he may well miss the fourth Test which starts in Bridgetown on Thursday. It is yet another setback for England’s pivotal all-rounder, whose injury CV grows ever longer. With a schedule that includes the Indian Premier League as well as relentless international cricket, there are growing concerns over his long-term fitness, particularly for this summer’s Ashes.

There were murmurings too that Graeme Swann is struggling with a sore right elbow but as he took eight wickets at the ARG and showed some charming guile he will be anxious not to give up his place.

In the next few days as they settle in Bridgetown, Flower and Strauss will have to try to come up with a new way for England to bowl out the opposition in the fourth innings. On four previous occasions in the last year – twice at Lord’s, at Edgbaston and at Chennai – they have been clear favourites to win and have mucked it up. They actually managed to lose the matches at Edgbaston and Chennai, which in both cases cost them the series as well. It is beyond carelessness, as Flower was candid enough to recognise.

“It was very, very disappointing. We dominated the Test and didn’t win it,” said Flower. “There have been quite a few occasions when we have failed to bowl a side out in the second innings, so we have to examine it and ask why and if are we doing the right things with reverse swing, are we bowling reverse swing in the right way, are our spinners having enough effect in the last innings?

“The guys got the ball reverse swinging, I thought they gave everything they had yesterday but if they aren’t bowling sides out regularly it’s our responsibility to question why not and do something about it.” The ball did indeed reverse swing and as it is supposed to be to a fast bowler what a smart bomb is to a fighter pilot – giving the extra edge to outwit the enemy – it begins to be especially worrying. Instead, England had to wait until the second new ball with which Stuart Broad removed both Ramnaresh Sarwan, who has scores of 107, 94 and 106 in the series, and Shivnarine Chanderpaul. They batted together for almost 53 overs and their departures provided England with the sense that victory was there to be taken. So it should have been.

Flower, who took over on tour in the wake of Peter Moores and Kevin Pietersen being deposed as coach and captain, has yet to make up his mind whether to apply for the post although he gave the broadest hint that he would do so. He is capable, thorough, honest, popular and has a close relationship with Strauss, which will be paramount in the selection process. But England are probably more likely to veer towards an external candidate. For Flower to have any chance, England probably have to win here.

“I might apply,” he said. “I have really enjoyed doing it so far but I’m sure there are many experienced, fine coaches out there. I haven’t quite made my decision yet.”

Asked what he could bring to the job he said: “My experience as a Test cricketer, the fact that I have been involved for almost two years and I know the personnel, I know the guys that are involved.” He then stopped himself and smiled, realising that he was appearing before a few reporters, not the ECB interview panel. “I don’t want to apply for the job right here in front of you guys but I believe I can help gel a unit together.”

Flower will provide England with one vital component in the next few days: downright honesty. He will not allow the genuine excuses to obstruct a frank examination of shortcomings. Self-delusion will not be part of his dressing room.

Several minor issues intruded on the inquest to where it went wrong. England might have enforced the follow on but the reasons for not doing so were sound, based on the logic that they had no desire to bat fourth on a pitch that might have crumbled. Then there was the decision to send in a nightwatchman for Owais Shah on the third evening. Shah himself sought the protection. Flower was happy about it.

If Flintoff is unfit for the Bridgetown Test, Flower and Strauss will be left to ponder the age-old question of what the balance should be: six batsmen and four bowlers or five of each, with Matt Prior, the wicketkeeper batting at six.

Broad’s ability with the bat gives them some latitude as does Swann’s. Considering what has just happened it is impossible to think England dare contemplate a mere four bowlers. On the available evidence seven might not be enough.

Ashes countdown: Freddie’s agenda

February

22-23 v Barbados Presidents XI

26-2 Mar FOURTH TEST v West Indies

March

6-10 FIFTH TEST v West Indies

14 Tour match v Players Association XI

15 Twenty20 v West Indies

20 First ODI v West Indies

22 Second ODI v West Indies

27 Third ODI v West Indies

29 Fourth ODI v West Indies

April

3 Fifth ODI v West Indies

18 Indian Premier League starts; expected to play first fortnight

May

6-10 FIRST TEST v West Indies

14-18 SECOND TEST v West Indies

21 First ODI v West Indies

24 Second ODI v West Indies

26 Third ODI v West Indies

June

5-21 World Twenty20 with England

Possible county duty for Lancashire

July

8-12 FIRST TEST v Australia

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