James Lawton: Wounded Flintoff has to answer a higher call

Every competitive instinct will urge him to play through the pain, but the all-rounder may yet serve England in a far braver way

There may never have been in big-time sport a dawn more testing, more questioning than the one that faces Andrew Flintoff this morning.

It is the one that could well mark the end of the last summer of his Test glory. That was the growing belief based on logic more than sentiment last night.

Certainly it is not a dawn to do with an adrenalin rush, a call to arms by a great, worshipping crowd. It's a lot lonelier than that. It's a man in a room, one of the endless strange ones he has known in his career, looking at himself in a way he has maybe never been obliged to do before.

He has to separate himself from his hopes and ambitions and, most of all, his optimism.

He has to answer the question that is gripping his team, the sporting nation – and, no doubt, to a large degree, his Australian opponents.

He has to tell himself, at a time which has rarely, if ever, mattered more to his team, whether he can truly believe that he can go for another five days. No one could envy his decision-making. His blood is up, whatever the testing of other parts of his body says, and he also knows that, as a Test cricketer who has come to dominate so much of this summer, his time is very short indeed. Here this morning he confronts the most biting of all the dilemmas, the one that says, 'Now or maybe never'.

His physical courage has long passed muster, and it flashed again a few days ago at Edgbaston when he scored 74 swashbuckling runs despite a right knee which, had it been a door hinge, would have cried out for a whole tin of oil.

Yet this morning a different kind of nerve and competitive honesty are required – perhaps.

Yesterday the England captain, Andrew Strauss, said that Flintoff's own verdict on whether he can get through the next five days would be a big, though maybe not ultimately decisive, factor in the final selection of the England team. At the very least this puts a mighty onus on Flintoff scrupulously levelling on all he has learnt about his body over the last few, injury-plagued years.

The greatest problem, of course, is the balancing of desire and reality, of emotion and practicality.

Here, you sense that the Aussies, so desperate to level the series before the final chapter at The Oval, may have something of an edge in those latter departments. Certainly, they have resisted so far the passionate declarations of fitness made by their own superhero, Brett Lee, and reading between the lines of captain Ricky Ponting yesterday the veteran paceman seems likely to be disappointed again when the teams are posted this morning.

While Ponting stressed the value of a bowler of Lee's quality and experience, he was unswerving about the importance of match fitness, bowling fitness, rather than the mere ability to pass a medical test.

When the medics said that further cortisone shots for Flintoff were out of the question without putting into severe jeopardy his post-Test career as a Twenty20 superstar, the pressure was piled on the England man to make the right decision both for himself and his team.

Ponting, in notably diplomatic form yesterday when fending off with some comfort questions about his Barmy Army tormentors – if that isn't putting their impact on one of the most refrigerated sporting psyches currently at work a little highly – could not resist a brief paddle in the Flintoff waters.

Yes, he said, Flintoff looked as if he might be getting a little worn down at Edgbaston, and that England would face a tough decision on the morning of the game. That was a statement of the obvious that might just have been touched by a hint of mischief. Do the Australians see the playing of England's talisman as a blow or a bonus? Surely, the debate has reached this point.

Flintoff's innings at Edgbaston was a potent contribution to the England cause, but it had to be balanced against his failure as the primary bowling threat, a wicketless performance and the plainest evidence that he had reached a point of near breakdown unlikely to be solved by three days of cortisone-free respite.

There is another factor that coach Andy Flower and Strauss (below) must also feed into the computer as the series reaches a possible point of decision. It is to consider at what stage the huge reliance on Flintoff, the sense that it is only on his shoulders that England can generate the confidence and the impact to nail down the Ashes for a straight second home series here, becomes counter-productive.

When do such key England performers as Jimmy Anderson, Graham Onions, Paul Collingwood and Strauss, all of whom on separate occasions have announced their ability to stand toe-to-toe profitably with the Aussies, have the sense that they are operating as glorified extras in the Flintoff show?

At Lord's it was unquestionably true, but not in Cardiff and nor at Edgbaston when he didn't have a bat in his hands.

It means that this morning's decision, however it is reached, is utterly central to the fate of the team. If Flintoff pushes back the odds, as he did at Lord's, and makes a match-winning contribution it will be an achievement of a dazzling order, something to put alongside the feats of the man with whom he has been compared for so much of his career, Sir Ian Botham. That is the tantalising prospect as the time of today's action draws near. But of course there is the other one, not tantalising but nightmarish – the possibility of Flintoff the hero becoming the passenger, the man whose dreams eventually, and perhaps inevitably, went beyond any reasonable prospect of further support from an overstretched body.

The latter possibility might just provoke from Flintoff an act as courageous as any of the many he has performed out on the field.

It might just provoke the admission that he has gone as far as he can in all the circumstances, and that to go further would become both a risk and a burden too great for his team-mates. Or that someone else, someone like Strauss, might have to tell him. Either way, we are surely talking about the uttering of the bravest words of a demanding summer.

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