England's coach last night put an end to the wild speculation surrounding Andrew Flintoff's place in the Test side. Flintoff, once the talismanic all-rounder, has been beset by injury and as he continues yet another comeback for Lancashire at Liverpool today, it is being increasingly suggested in some quarters that England may be better off without him.
But Andy Flower recognises that Flintoff remains capable of exerting crucial difference on the direction of matches. Asked directly yesterday if Flintoff would be a shoo-in for a place in England's side for the first Test against Australia, Flower said: "Yes he is, if he is fit and firing." It was short but it was to the point.
The reason for doubt is that England have won more games lately without Flintoff than with him, but this is to ignore both the quality of the opposition and his presence as a cricketing warrior. There are 21 days until the Ashes and Flintoff looks to be timing perfectly his race to be fit after sustaining a knee injury in South Africa during the Indian Premier League season.
Flower said he would like Flintoff to play another first-class match before the Ashes, for England in their specially arranged match against Warwickshire. "I think playing a first-class game will be a good thing. It's good news on him, but [playing] first-class cricket is important for him."
If there was consolation to be had from England's elimination from the World Twenty20 on Monday night – when they were beaten by West Indies in a rain-affected match decided by a Duckworth-Lewis system shoot-out – it is that Flower can now concentrate all his attention on regaining the Ashes.
"The biggest thing we can take forward to the Ashes is that we performed under quite a lot of pressure against Pakistan and India, the two finalists from the last Twenty20 competition," he said. But he was equally aware that England's elimination as host nation at the Super Eight stage was disappointing, if hardly surprising.
"I think we have got better in this tournament with our Twenty20 cricket," Flower said. "The lack of boundaries from the middle order is definitely an area where we are not as good as other sides but we still posted 161 against West Indies, which was a score that gave us something to bowl at and I think we could have defended that in 20 overs."
Flower also defended his selection of the team. Although England's selectors specifically included two Twenty20 specialists, Graham Napier and Rob Key, they were virtually overlooked with Key getting one game completely out of position.
"The balance of this side was made up of specialist batsmen and specialist bowlers," he said. "Obviously the make up of that bowling attack might have to include a couple of strong hitters.
"I feel sorry for a couple of guys who did not get a chance in the tournament but when you play competitive sport some hard decisions have to be made, and that was hard on them."