England were left looking disunited and chaotic yesterday as they began to prepare a last-ditch strategy to recapture the Ashes. Calls for calm heads which emanated from their dressing room after the cataclysmic defeat by Australia in the fourth Test were utterly undermined by the latest performance of the Andrew Flintoff Circus.
Australia, level at 1-1 following their innings and 80 run victory inside three days at Headingley, would have been laughing all the way to the big top. Flintoff was all but declared fit for the decisive final match at The Oval next week after a significant reduction in the swelling on his right knee, but although it was obviously welcome news for England it did not eradicate the discord which had emerged earlier.
It has rarely been all quiet on the Preston front throughout the Lancastrian all-rounder's career but a period of composed, if strained silence might have been wise after he was left out of the team for the fourth Test. Instead, Flintoff's agent, Andrew Chandler, took it upon himself to describe how upset his charge was at being omitted because of the injured right knee which has dogged him all summer.
It was suspected that Flintoff would have been prepared – indeed was desperate – to play but, after advice from the medical team, the captain Andrew Strauss and coach Andy Flower decided they could not take such a risk.
Flintoff saw a specialist yesterday and the prognosis, though not definitive, was upbeat. If fit for the fifth Test as expected he will naturally be selected, but that does not make the way ahead completely smooth. Considering the way England played without him it is pretty clear that a one-legged and indeed blindfolded Flintoff would have been more useful than his colleagues in Leeds.
But Chandler's words will hardly have endeared his man to the team management in the days before the crucial match at The Oval, which will decide the destiny of the Ashes. They have enough on their hands in deciding the composition of a team which is in urgent need of big runs from some, or indeed any of its batsmen. England are at sixes and sevens because of their three, four and five.
As they have done all summer, Flintoff and his knee are proving an enormous distraction, though there can be no realistic option but to play him now. Chandler was reported as saying that Flintoff told Strauss and Flower he was fit enough to get through at Headingley. Anyone who saw Flintoff practise in Leeds might doubt his judgement but it is certainly true that he was prepared to do anything to get on the field. Having announced his retirement at the end of the series, he was determined to play in every match.
In a melodramatic summation, Chandler said: "I've never seen anybody as low as Flintoff was on Thursday when he was told he would not be selected. He was prepared to do whatever it takes, was prepared to put whatever needed to be put into his knee."
There was silence from the Flintoff camp yesterday. It is understood that Flintoff is not exactly delighted with Chandler who let it slip three weeks ago that his man was about to announce his retirement before the official declaration.
Chandler spoke to Mike Atherton of The Times and it was being suggested that he assumed he was speaking to the former England captain rather than the journalist he now is, in which case Flintoff needs to get the press agent he has recently hired starting work sooner rather than later.
Geoff Miller, the chairman of selectors, backed the decision to omit Flintoff. "Yes, he might have thought he was fit to do a certain job but we had to work out whether he'd be fit to do a constant job, meaning bowl the amount of overs required to get the 20 wickets," he said.
The continuing, unwanted distraction could not prevent England undertaking essential housekeeping duties.
Fast bowler James Anderson had a scan on his hamstring and was given the all-clear. Embarrassingly, five players were released from the beaten fourth-Test team to play for their counties in Championship matches starting tomorrow – embarrassing because they would not have been available had the Test match lasted five days instead of three.
Ravi Bopara and Alastair Cook will play for Essex, Ian Bell for Warwickshire, Graeme Swann for Nottinghamshire and Graham Onions for Durham. It is a risk either way for all concerned. If neither Bell nor Bopara, who were part of a middle order which contributed 16 runs in two innings at Headingley, both fail it is impossible to see how they could be picked for The Oval Test.
The England Lions side for the two-day match against Australia at Canterbury was named yesterday, excluding players from counties involved in the Twenty20 finals day or Pro40 matches, which renders it fairly meaningless. Except, that is, for the presence in it of Jonathan Trott, the Warwickshire batsman selected in the squad for the fourth Test.
Trott, while favourite, is but one of the names in the frame for a Test batting place. It promises to be some week.
Stephen Brenkley's squad for fifth Test
A J Strauss (captain, Middlesex), A N Cook (Essex), R W T Key (Kent), I J L Trott (Warwickshire), P D Collingwood (Durham), R W T Key (Kent), M J Prior (wicketkeeper, Sussex), A Flintoff (Lancashire), S C J Broad (Nottinghamshire), G P Swann (Nottinghamshire), S J Harmison (Durham), G Onions (Durham), J M Anderson (Lancashire)
Fifth Test: The Oval, 20-24 August