Freddie inspires but doubts refuse to go away

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The Independent Online

Fred's back and it really matters. Flintoff is England's talisman, capable of inspiring the other bowlers and providing the essential balancing mechanism in the attack. Knowing he is there creates confidence in colleagues such as James Anderson and Dimitri Mascarenhas. But Flintoff is also England's greatest anxiety. The hard questions will not go away: how long can he keep it up? How best to manage him?

Last week the rumour was that more problems had been identified in Flintoff's vulnerable left ankle. So when he retreated to the boundary after bowling five overs yesterday and talked to a member of England's medical staff, it was the trigger for dire speculation. For a start, would he travel to South Africa today with England's squad for the World Twenty20 tournament?

Flintoff silenced this outbreak of pessimism 20 minutes later when he returned to the field, bowled again, and hared round the boundary to try to save a four. He walks with a long-legged lope which might mask the extent of his problem, but there was no suggestion that he was favouring the ankle. England's spokesman said that Flintoff had left the field to restrap it, and the look of him on his return had seemed reassuring.

Anderson began the good work with a splendidly hostile opening spell, dismissing Sourav Ganguly and Gautam Gambhir in eight overs that cost 19 runs. Two more wickets and England had a stranglehold, and Flintoff duly delivered both. He was lucky to have Sachin Tendulkar given out caught behind; Rahul Dravid thought he had not edged the ball to the keeper either. But Flintoff is an intimidating presence – and his luck was not consistent. When Robin Uthappa did edge him to Matt Prior, he was given not out.

After Flintoff's first spell, Mascarenhas bowled a nagging line on or just outside off stump, with Prior standing up. His previous performances in one-day internationals were ordinary (three wickets at 63.66). He doubled the total of wickets and nearly halved the average, and looked as if he belonged in the team rather than being on the margins.

Stuart Broad had an unconvincing day and Monty Panesar an uneventful one, but the combination of these five bowlers, allied to generally excellent fielding, dismissed India on a helpful pitch under grey skies.

The performance of England's one-day side has been encouraging – especially as pre-series forecasts had India winning with humiliating ease. Good enough, in fact, to start a a debate about the best way of utilising Flintoff's uncommon skill. The left ankle has become his Achilles heel. The more he bowls, the more likely it will break down again.

One answer is for management to dictate a reduced workload, and the simple way of doing this is to restrict his appearances to one-dayers and Twenty20. The idea of Flintoff retiring from Test cricket is disorienting. Surely he has so much still to give. But he has a body that seems no longer capable of delivering it. Less may prove to be more.