England hold breath as Flintoff takes ball

After 146 days, an ankle operation, lots of early morning running up Lancashire moors and a series of severe training stints in Indian nets, the England captain, Andrew Flintoff, will again bowl in a match today.

Nobody should imagine that the four or five overs he is likely to produce at the Sardar Patel stadium are aimed at beating the West Indies in the Champions Trophy. That is a side issue and if it is not the least significant one-day international that England have ever played, it is probably in the top five. Fred is testing the troublesome joint on his left foot as part of Project Gabba - the plan to be fit for the first Test of the Ashes against Australia in Brisbane on 23 November, and England's chairman of selectors, David Graveney, was sufficiently encouraged by the news of Flintoff's return to talk up England's Ashes hopes.

"Certainly we can win the Ashes," he said. "I think it will be very close. We're going to have to play very well - and certainly better than in the last couple of games."

It was always intended that on this day Freddie would resume bowling and yesterday at a press conference, which was otherwise concerned with counting the number of times the word proud was used, he confirmed it. "I've bowled in the nets for the past two weeks or so - the ankle has responded well to everything," he said. "I've just done another 20 minutes and provided I don't react to anything there's a chance I'll have a go."

When he does so English hearts will be in mouths. It is essential that Flintoff's ankle bears the load of bowling over the next 10 weeks. Without Fred the all-rounder, the Ashes will not be coming home.

Flintoff will be told to take it easy. Asked if he would bowl all his 10 overs should he manage a blistering opening burst he was adamant: "No way."

That begged the question: what would have happened had England's qualification for the semi-finals depended this match? Would Flintoff have bowled all 10 then? The answer is still in the negative. For all the talk about the Champions Trophy being important - and it is not unimportant - it is the Ashes that matter.

England (from): A Flintoff (capt), A J Strauss, I R Bell, K P Pietersen, M H Yardy, P D Collingwood, J W M Dalrymple, C M W Read (wkt), S I Mahmood, S J Harmison, J M Anderson, J Lewis, R Clarke, E C Joyce.

West Indies (from): B C Lara (capt), C H Gayle, S Chanderpaul, R R Sarwan, D J Bravo, R S Morton, M N Samuels, D R Smith, C S Baugh (wkt), I D R Bradshaw, J E Taylor, C D Collymore, F H Edwards, W W Hinds.

Umpires: S J A Taufel & D J Harper (both Australia).

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