England seek lift-off without Flintoff

Deflated tourists will have to live without their talismanic all-rounder for this week’s Test – and learn how to win again
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The Independent Online

England’s strategy for salvaging their tour was thrown into predictable disarray last night. Andrew Flintoff will definitely miss the Fourth Test against West Indies with a hip injury and must be considerably doubtful for the final match and the one-day series which follow.

He will rest this week and then be assessed by the medical staff. It did not exactly sound optimistic and the inclination must be to use up yet more of the supply of cotton wool balls kept to protect Flintoff from himself and send him home. So brittle is his body that it is unthinkable that the all-rounder can still harbour hopes of appearing in the Indian Premier League in April if he wants to do the right thing by England.

On the scale of anything that can go wrong will go wrong, his injury is fairly small fry considering what England have been through lately. But anything involving Flintoff has its own significance and it will have an immediate effect on the delicate balance of a side who appear to have forgotten how to win. They remain 1-0 down with two to play after failing to take the 10 West Indies wickets they needed in Antigua last week despite bowling 128 overs.

The conundrum facing Team Andrew – Messrs Strauss and Flower, captain and coach respectively – is the eternal one for selectors: five bowlers or four, six batsmen or five. That is where the all-rounder comes in. Flintoff’s absence leaves a gaping hole and to try to fill it two players were immediately summoned from the Lions tour of New Zealand.

Ravi Bopara and Amjad Khan arrived in Bridgetown yesterday afternoon after a journey which involved flights to the west coast of the United States, the east coast and finally the Caribbean. Both have been called up nominally as cover but England are in no position to play the percentages now. They have to gamble to win.

Although the finale at the Antigua Recreation Ground was gripping and wonderful for Test cricket, as the home side’s last-wicket pair held out for 10 overs, it was deeply troubling for England. For the fifth time in a year they could not finish off the opposition in the fourth innings. Indeed, they contrived to lose two of those games, admittedly against superior opposition, to South Africa at Edgbaston and India in Chennai. Flower is aware of the failing and frank enough to say that it needed to be addressed. Given the firepower of the attack, it would be folly to go into the match with only four bowlers plus the part-timers.

England will hardly miss Flintoff’s runs. Apart from his pair in the Third Test, the third of his career, he has batted poorly since returning to Tests after an 18-month absence last summer. His 264 runs at 24 is a poor return and nine innings at No 6 have brought only 171. So influential is Flintoff in the dressing room that it would have been tempting to keep him at six in the hope that things might look up. Perversely, his injury provides an opportunity to put the wicketkeeper, Matt Prior, who looks extremely well-ordered, at six and still have five bowlers.

It might mean Stuart Broad batting at seven, which may be a place too high at present, but something has to give. They are not now in the business of settling for a high-scoring draw.

Apart from the two recent series against New Zealand, when boots were being filled by the bucketload, none of England’s bowlers takes his wickets at a decent rate. Since his return last July, Flintoff has taken a wicket every 76 balls. In that time, Stephen Harmison’s nine wickets have come every 79 balls, Jimmy Anderson’s 21 every 83. Compare these with the equivalent strike-rates of South Africa’s Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini and Morne Morkel (47, 56 and 56), the Australian Mitchell Johnson (50) and India’s Ishant Sharma (60). Clearly something is wrong beyond unforgiving pitches.

It may be the lack of reverse-swing, it may be insufficient control of it, it may be too few new-ball wickets, although it is later on in the innings that the difficulties tend to start. At least Broad is heading firmly in the right direction. He took the new ball in Antigua in the second innings and looked impressive. Not lightning quick, he is concentrating on the old virtues.

“All through my development as a bowler I have really admired the likes of Glenn McGrath, Shaun Pollock and Stuart Clark who are quick enough they rush you but they’re ruthless with their discipline,” he said. “I know when I’m batting that you’re in a lot more trouble if you’re given nothing to score from. My view is to make sure you’ve got accuracy and skills and in time pace will develop.”

England have a two-day warm-up match starting today against the BCA President’s XI. But the real business starts on Thursday again at a packed Kensington Oval. Of course, they would want Big Fred but it is remarkable that since the Ashes of 2005, his finest hour, England have played 22 Tests with him and won three and 21 without him and won 10. Can’t do with him, can do without him may be pushing it but to win this series, England will probably have to take the second figure to 12.