England gamble on Flintoff fitness

England will take a huge gamble this morning if they select their team for the fourth Test against South Africa believing Andrew Flintoff is fit enough to bowl 40 overs in the match. This is the size of the workload regularly placed on the broad shoulders of the Lancashire all-rounder, but there must be severe doubts that his body is up to it.

England will take a huge gamble this morning if they select their team for the fourth Test against South Africa believing Andrew Flintoff is fit enough to bowl 40 overs in the match. This is the size of the workload regularly placed on the broad shoulders of the Lancashire all-rounder, but there must be severe doubts that his body is up to it.

Flintoff limped off in Cape Town a week ago with a minor side strain and yesterday in practice had his first bowl since England's 196-run defeat in the third Test. But he looked far from convincing - the 27 year-old trundled in off a 15-yard run-up and sent down 20 gentle deliveries.

Flintoff is a pivotal figure in Michael Vaughan's side and his presence allows England to play seven batsmen and five bowlers. And this is why they were prepared to give him as much time as they could to recover. But what took place on the eve of this crucial match could hardly be described as a fitness test and should Flintoff bowl with similar gusto during the game it is hard to see him having much impact.

Yet Vaughan seemed perfectly content with the preparations of his talisman. "Flintoff is fine," the England captain said confidently. "He has had a bowl in the middle and he has come through it OK, so he goes into the game just as he did the first three - fully fit to play his part as an all-rounder."

It is Vaughan's job to be upbeat and bold about his team before a match of this importance, but he must be aware of the dire consequences which would result from Flintoff aggravating the injury this morning. It could leave England with only three seamers on a Wanderers pitch that has a history of helping fast bowlers.

"There is an element of risk playing anyone who has a slight niggle," Vaughan admitted. "But we have given him plenty of rest between Cape Town and here, and the reason why he did not bowl on Tuesday was only precautionary. We will monitor him throughout the game, but he is a crucial member of our team and to lose him with the Test series being 1-1 would be a huge blow for us."

Flintoff is a big, heavy man, who relies on strength to get the ball travelling towards the batsman at 85mph. He has to throw his body on the line to be effective, which is why there has been talk of limiting the number of overs he bowls.

In theory this sounds an astute course to take but, as Vaughan pointed out, it is totally impractical. "I don't want to bowl Freddie into the ground," Vaughan said. "But he and Stephen Harmison have been our best bowlers in the last year. He was our best bowler in Cape Town and there are periods of play where you have to bowl your best bowlers if you want to win games of cricket. Obviously I have an eye on the future, but I also have an eye on winning Test series and this is an important one for us to win."

England may contemplate changes to their side in an effort to accommodate Flintoff. The hot, sultry conditions on the high veldt encourage swing and this brings James Anderson into the equation. The Lancashire swing bowler had a lengthy bat under the guidance of Duncan Fletcher, and that was a strong indication that he will start - it is unlikely the England coach would have spent 20 minutes working with a player who was not going to play.

With Flintoff deemed to be fit, and Harmison and Hoggard to be untouchable, Simon Jones is the only seamer whose position is vunerable. Whether Anderson plays instead of Simon Jones or the spinner Ashley Giles will depend on how many overs the selectors believe Flintoff can bowl. Vaughan will be reluctant to drop Giles, even though his nine wickets in this series have cost him 41 runs each. Giles offers his captain control and is capable of tying an end up while the pacemen fire away at the other.

It would also be harsh to axe Jones, but the Glamorgan fast bowler has been underbowled by Vaughan - a sign that he does not have huge confidence in him.

A compromise could be Paul Collingwood instead of Robert Key. The Durham batsman bowls adequate medium pace and in an emergency he could act as a fourth seamer if Flintoff went bust. But the fact that he has been batting against Andrew Strauss, Marcus Trescothick and Key in the nets suggest this is not part of England's plan.

South Africa will make at least one change to their side. The 76-Test veteran Mark Boucher looks set to regain his place behind the stumps and this will allow the hugely talented A B de Villiers to concentrate on his batting.

The other dilemma for the home side is Charl Langeveldt. The swing bowler took five wickets on his Test debut 10 days ago but fractured his left hand when Flintoff hit him with a bouncer.

Playing Langeveldt would be a risk, but his style of bowling is ideally suited to the conditions here. If the South African selectors feel that this is a gamble they would rather not take, Dale Steyn will play.

SOUTH AFRICA (from): *G C Smith, H M Amla, N Boje, ÝM V Boucher, A B de Villiers, H H Dippenaar, H H Gibbs, J H Kallis, C K Langeveldt, M Ntini, S M Pollock, J A Rudolph, D W Steyn.

ENGLAND (from): *M P Vaughan, J M Anderson, A Flintoff, A F Giles, S J Harmison, M J Hoggard, ÝG O Jones, S P Jones, R W T Key, A J Strauss, G P Thorpe, M E Trescothick.

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