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England set to gamble on Flintoff

Talismanic all-rounder is optimistic of being fit for first Test against West Indies

After all these years nothing exercises English cricket more than the state of Andrew Flintoff's body. Changes of captaincy, dressing room rifts, big money contracts in exotic Twenty20 competitions pale into insignificance compared to whether the talismanic all-rounder will make it to the starting line for the next match.

The impromptu medical bulletin from Sabina Park suggested that Flintoff would indeed be in the England team for the first Test against the West Indies which starts tomorrow. He was not definitely saying that he would be a definite – there have been too many absences for that – but he was guardedly optimistic that the mild side strain he suffered on the first day of the tour last week had cleared up.

But it is not only Flintoff's physical wellbeing that excites attention at present but the cast of his mind. Perhaps it is the prospect of yet another injury, perhaps it is the baggage surrounding the team but he seems slightly distracted and aloof. Not Freddie, in other words. Maybe this will all change once the action gets going and he is part of it.

Caution is mixed with optimism in his assessment of the injury. He has missed so much Test cricket that his natural and understandable inclination would be to declare himself fit. Flintoff has played 72 matches but missed 52 since making his debut in 1998, most because of injury not form.

The last big gap, one that might have terminated his career, was of 17 matches spanning 18 months from January 2007 until the summer of 2008. First he had to overcome a fourth operation on his fragile ankle and then, just as he was about to re-enter the arena, he suffered a side strain.

It is a recurrence of the latter injury, not precisely connected but then not disconnected either, that has threatened his participation in the opening Test of this series. If he felt only a twinge during practice in St Kitts last week it would have been sufficient for him to be cautious.

"We will see tomorrow, but I'm hopeful," he said. "I'll have a bowl tomorrow and see from there." Flintoff's progress was delayed yesterday by the damp nets at Sabina Park, which made them much too capricious for England's batsmen to have any wish to face fast bowling.

Flintoff might have desperately needed the work-out but his colleagues were not about to risk injury themselves. Instead he was restricted to two separate sessions bowling at a single stump on the main square in which he was right on the button.

Side strains can badly debilitate bowlers. One more ball than necessary can mean the difference between rest and treatment lasting a week or at least six weeks out. There is probably no medical reason to suggest that once you have had a side strain you may get another but that does not diminish the wariness.

"It's a bowling injury that nobody wants," he said. "The one main concern is the risk of aggravating it. I bowled the other day, bowled today and will bowl tomorrow to prove there is no danger of doing that. I've got to get through another tough session. Last time it happened I never felt anything go but just a bit of stiffness. It just shows how well I know my own body." And it shows too why he is taking no chances now.

Flintoff was one of seven English players to make the final cut yesterday in the auction of players for the Indian Premier League. Although he is not guaranteed a place when the bids are placed in Goa in Friday the likelihood is that both he and Kevin Pietersen will be recruited. The others are Paul Collingwood, Owais Shah, Ravi Bopara, Luke Wright and Samit Patel.

Flintoff said that he was not concerned about who would put their hands up in the auction and did not think three weeks in the IPL amid a crowded international programme would have an affect. "I'm trying to get fit for a Test match but I wouldn't have put my name forward if I thought it was going to be a concern." But the influence of the IPL, whatever Flintoff says, will not go away. Not this tour. Not ever.