With the Ashes depending on it, England yesterday hesitated in selecting their most important Test team for four years. To protect their precious 1-0 lead in the series, they gave themselves the options of sticking with a crocked all-rounder who can barely walk and is soon to retire, or fielding an uncapped 28-year-old South African batsman.
Such is Andrew Flintoff's influence on the balance of the side that he will be given every chance to demonstrate his fitness, perhaps up to the moment of the toss for the fourth npower Test which begins at Headingley on Friday. So likely is his absence with an injured knee, however, that Jonathan Trott, of the Warwickshire middle order, is on red alert standby.
The squad of 14 the selectors revealed yesterday illustrated their uncertainty about players' fitness, team composition and pitch conditions. They know they cannot afford to get it wrong. Fast bowlers Stephen Harmison, who is suffering from severe blisters on the base of his feet, and Ryan Sidebottom have been included but Monty Panesar has been dropped.
Australia, desperate to level matters, have injury concerns of their own. Michael Clarke, the series' most successful batsman, has an abdominal strain which he sustained during his century in the third Test on Monday and, although the tourists are optimistic about his chances, he will miss training today. They will take no risks.
If Trott was a surprise choice, it was initially presumed that he would be in the side if Flintoff, who hobbled throughout the last two days of the drawn match at Edgbaston, fails to recover. But the team director, Andy Flower, insisted that nothing is certain and it seems the selectors really do not know what they are doing yet.
"No, that is not an automatic swap," Flower said. "If Fred Flintoff can't play Trott is an option to bat at six, then we balance the bowling attack thereafter. But we might still go with Stuart Broad at seven, Graeme Swann eight and three other bowlers. We trust our top six to score the bulk of the runs and the others have the onus of taking the 20 wickets."
It seems that Trott would play only if Flintoff withdraws because there would be no question of the Lancashire all-rounder being part of a four-man bowling attack. Equally Trott's call-up for the first time to a Test squad illustrates the depth of the concerns about Flintoff.
Flower and the England captain, Andrew Strauss, would then have to decide whether four bowlers could bowl out Australia twice and since five of them took only three wickets in three sessions in Birmingham on Monday the conclusion may be obvious.
Creeping into their thoughts, however, will be the retention of England's lead, achieved with the historic victory in the second Test at Lord's. By playing an extra batsman they might think it is worthwhile making it more difficult for Australia to take 20 wickets, which they have not looked like doing since the opening game in Cardiff (and ultimately failed to do so there).
Flintoff's state of body is directing team affairs as never before. When he departs for ever from Test cricket after the fifth game at The Oval, England will have to decide whether they think they can win matches with four bowlers (probably not) or with only five specialist batsmen plus the wicketkeeper (also probably not).
In 2005, England were leading 2-1 going into the final match at The Oval. Their fast swing bowler, Simon Jones, was unfit and they were forced to make their first team change of the series. Instead of keeping a five-man bowling attack, they chose an extra batsman, Paul Collingwood, whose 72 minutes at the crease in England's second innings were to be vital to the cause.
"I am not any the wiser today about Fred," Flower said. "He is quite bullish about playing, but you never know. He was moving gingerly in the field and we have to leave the decision to the last moment again and just trust him to give us good information about his own body plus also the medical staff."
Flower rejected the assertion that the uncertainty about Flintoff is a distraction for the rest of the team. "We know he is struggling and we have our contingency plans ready and the people involved in those plans know where they stand," he said. "I think the guys in the changing room are pretty calm about the situation. When Kevin Pietersen played at Lord's and could not run properly, Paul Collingwood was well aware of that and that is why the decision as to whether guys play when they are not fully fit is a tricky decision because it can impact on others."
Keeping Trott waiting too long about his status would not be fair. He has scored three Championship centuries this season to push to him to the front of the short queue of batsmen, his claims doubtless enhanced by the selector, Ashley Giles, who is the team director at Warwickshire.
Kent's Robert Key, who was named in the performance squad, has a Test double-century and completed his third hundred in three matches on Monday, has been overlooked.
Harmison is in top form but his blisters have arrived with poor timing. The place of Broad had seemed in danger but his mature fifty and his bowling on the last day in Birmingham may just have saved him. England have options but the same XI beckons. Australia, needing a win, must consider change still more urgently and the experience of one or both of Brett Lee and Stuart Clark will be summoned.
England squad for Headingley
England's squad for the fourth npower Ashes Test against Australia, starting at Headingley on Friday:
*A J Strauss Age: 32 Tests: 64
A N Cook 24/46
R S Bopara 24/9
I R Bell 27/47
P D Collingwood 33/51
†M J Prior 27/21
A Flintoff 31/77
S C J Broad 23/20
G P Swann 30/10
J M Anderson 27/40
G Onions 26/4
S J Harmison 30/60
R J Sidebottom 31/21
I J L Trott 28/0Reuse content