New model Flintoff hopes to rise to occasion on return to Mumbai

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The Independent Online

Whatever happens four years later in the first warm-up match of this tour, starting today, or in the third and final Test in the city late next month, there will be no reprise, svelte though the Freddie frame now is. These days he is an all-rounder only in the category that matters to an international cricketer.

"It was an amazing place to play and I think I had a moment of madness," he said. "I was young and daft then, I'm a bit older and wiser now." And a jolly sight better cricketer as well: one who has turned the promise he demonstrated so amply by bowling Javagal Srinath when India needed only six to win, and thus ensuring England tied a nerve-shredding series 3-3, into the considerable achievement of Ashes hero, sports personality of the year and the best pound for pound, so to speak, batsman-bowler-fielder combination in the world.

Not, were he up for a spot of shirt twirling, would the Brabourne Stadium, where England start their curtain-raiser against the Cricket Club of India President's XI this morning, be the natural place for it. Indeed, it seems almost disrespectful to be playing the kind of 16-a-side free-for-all on which England have insisted for reasons of giving all the lads some time in the middle.

Seventeen Test matches were played at the Brabourne, most of them dull but thoroughly courteous draws, until rows about ticketing arrangements persuaded the Bombay Cricket Association to build its own ground, the Wankhede Stadium, where the Flintoff shirt came off and where the Test will be played next month. Thus is the Brabourne now reduced to this. Probably only England would have the temerity to avoid making it a proper game of cricket. The counties could have few legitimate objections if touring teams insisted on allowing their entire squad proper practice.

It may be an inevitable legacy of short tours. The tourists have only one more match before they must face the might of India in three successive Tests in 22 days.

The merits of playing 17 men in a cricket team are at best debatable, like mass substitutions in friendly football internationals. A three-day match should offer scope for redemption as well as triumph and disaster. Fail in this ridiculous little encounter and it is conceivable that an entire tour will hit the buffers.

There is a place or two in the first Test in Nagpur at stake. Paul Collingwood, scorer of 96 and 80 in England's last Test, a defeat in Lahore, faces omission no matter what he does because Andrew Strauss is returning. The spinners promise to offer most of a diversion in the helter-skelter rush to impress.

The England coach, Duncan Fletcher, has stipulated that he has an open mind on the trio, Shaun Udal, the man in possession after three caps, and the challengers, Ian Blackwell and Monty Panesar.

One will earn the selectorial nod. It will be up to Flintoff and his fast bowling chums, Stephen Harmison, Matthew Hoggard and the returning Simon Jones, the best quartet ever to play for England at once, if India are to be seen off. They will all need work over the next three days, especially Flintoff.

He must reassure himself that the ankle on which he had surgery last year and that troubled him again in Pakistan is not about to impose itself again. It was in India that he made sudden progress as a bowler in 2002. "I just used to come in and put it there but it was in Bangalore I first took wickets" Flintoff said. "I got a bit of confidence and over the past two and a half years have started thinking as a bowler. It all kick-started here." If he truly rises to the occasion, as he can, Flintoff could have the shirt off India's back.

* Lancashire have asked for patience in their efforts to decide whether to make a controversial relocation away from Old Trafford, since they believe updating it to the standards of other Test grounds could cost upwards of £25m.