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Flintoff makes quick impact on early return

Australia's bad week does not improve. After the ignominy of their early exit from the World Twenty20 comes the news that Andrew Flintoff, a man considered vital to England's chances of a 2005 Ashes rerun, is back in action following his latest encounter with the surgeon's knife.

The 31-year-old, who suffered a torn cartilage in his right knee six weeks ago during his stint in the Indian Premier League, had not been expected to return until Lancashire meet Hampshire in Liverpool next week.

But his post-operative recuperation, under the combined supervision of the ECB and Lancashire, has gone so well that champions Durham found themselves granted the dubious privilege of facing him first.

Although Lancashire, encouraged by his practice sessions during last week's match against Somerset, made no secret of bringing Flintoff with them to the North-east, he was not named in their squad. However, when young all-rounder Tom Smith cried off with a side strain yesterday morning, Flintoff stepped up.

His impact was instant. Summoned for the 12th over after captain Glen Chapple had asked Durham to bat first, Flintoff immediately found good bounce and claimed a wicket with his second delivery as Michael di Venuto edged a rising ball.

He bowled at a lively pace, if not flat out, and settled quickly on a testing length. After three stoppages for rain in the afternoon, he struck again with the first legitimate ball – the first went for four wides – of his third spell, wicketkeeper Sutton taking another catch to remove Mitch Claydon.

Lancashire coach Peter Moores believes that, barring any setback, Flintoff will be ready to resume his England career when the Ashes starts in Cardiff on 8 July. "He has increased his intensity and bowled a bit more each day and came through practice very well this morning so he was deemed fit to play," Moores said.

"He is obviously keen to get as much cricket under his belt as possible to ready for the Ashes. He looks to be moving well. Let's hope that he stays that way."

Therein lies the worry for England. Since he began his Test career in 1998, Flintoff has been sidelined for significant periods 11 times, undergoing six operations, including four on his left ankle, and comebacks have often triggered new problems. After ankle surgery last year, for example, he missed the Test series against New Zealand after developing a side strain.

"There is always a risk," Moores said. "But Freddie is sensible. He has done lots of rehab and he has listened carefully to the medical team."

Lancashire had the better of the opening day as one Durham batsman after another failed to build on a start. Not for the first time, Chapple out-bowled his younger team-mates.