'Flintoff must play, or England will lose Ashes,' warns Warne

'Best bowler in world at the moment' can lift team to new level against Australia

Shane Warne, a man who knows a thing or two about how to win – and lose – the Ashes, yesterday warned England that they will not regain the little urn unless Andrew Flintoff is 100 per cent fit for the summer. Given that Flintoff is sitting out the fourth Test against the West Indies in Barbados due to a muscle tear in his hip, which is the latest in a long line of injuries the talismanic all-rounder has suffered, it is by no means guaranteed.

"Andy Flintoff is the key to England winning the Ashes," Warne, a new commentator for Sky Sports, said. "Not so much his batting but his bowling. He is the best bowler in the world right now. He drags his team along, with his personality, he is inspirational.

"If Flintoff's not playing Australia will win the Ashes. If Fred plays they are even sides but without Fred Australia are slightly ahead as England will then rely too much on too few players," added Warne, who played in eight Ashes series and saw first hand Flintoff's influence in England's golden summer of 2005. "Fred is also awful for left-handers to face and Australia will have four or five in their top six," Warne added.

It raises the nagging question of whether the oh-so-important Flintoff should risk his fragile body by heading off to earn vast riches in the Indian Premier League for three weeks prior to England's packed summer. "Yeah, but $1.5m pro rata for six weeks work," the Australian said. "Who would turn it down? It is very hard for the player not to go. But the Ashes is the biggest prize in world cricket and England need Flintoff fit and firing. I would always say your country is No 1 and I would guess that Fred will not play in the IPL... but you can't begrudge him if he does.

"Look, what it really needs is the ICC [International Cricket Council] to use common sense, a word they don't seem to have in their book, and clear April out so there is no international cricket – the IPL should be a month – with a week's break either side. The IPL is a great advert for cricket."

Warne dismissed the statistics that point to England being more successful of late without Flintoff. "It's a rubbish stat," the former leg-spinner said. "Do you want him in your side or not? Ask any England fan and the answer will be yes."

Warne said his country's poor performances of late were understandable given the high turnover in personnel. "Australia got themselves in positions to win in the recent series [they lost to South Africa] but they were outplayed. It was inexperience. Not knowing how to win cost them. For England just to try and win something would be good. Since 2005 they've had no victories to speak of in any form of the game. Both sides will lift their game for the Ashes but they need some form."

Warne also criticised England's efforts and Andrew Strauss' captaincy so far in the West Indies but praised Michael Vaughan. "England were all out for 50 in the first Test, it's obviously not where they want to be and they batted far too long [in the Antigua Test] and were too conservative with their declaration. They are lacking confidence.

"But Strauss has a good head on his shoulders. You've got to give him a chance to grow into the captaincy. Give him 12 months. Michael Vaughan is the best captain I have played against in an Ashes, easily. He understood the game and had respect from his team. Plus, he put in the performances. He should still be England's No 3 batsman."

Shane Warne will commentate for Sky Sports during its exclusively live and high definition Ashes coverage this summer

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