The highlight of a miserable week for the England cricket team, a week that has seen the morality and ability of the one-day side questioned, took place in Brighton yesterday morning. It was the sight of a fit Andrew Flintoff (right) running up the hill at Hove and bowling for Lancashire in the LV Championship First Division match against Sussex. Flintoff has had his moments off the field but very few modern cricketers encapsulate what is meant by the "Spirit of Cricket" better than him. Flintoff plays hard but fair and it is difficult to believe England's appeal for the run out of New Zealand's Grant Elliott would have been carried out at The Oval on Wednesday had he been playing. England need Flintoff back, not just to bowl hostile overs, give the ball an almighty smack and take breathtaking catches at slip but to provide the dressing room with inspiration and a sense of perspective.
But it appears as though Michael Vaughan, England's Test captain, will have to wait a little longer before being given the pleasure of his company. Yesterday Flintoff had the first proper bowl since injuring his side almost two months ago and the England selectors are determined not to rush him back for the first Test against South Africa on 10 July. The selectors were keen to have Flintoff return to their side for the New Zealand Test series at the start of the summer but the side injury prevented this. It takes time for a fast bowler's body to get strong and used to the pounding it receives; it is a process that selectors underestimate at their peril.
"We'll talk about the Test team later this week, but you can be sure we will not put Andrew Flintoff in jeopardy if we don't think he is bowling fit," said Peter Moores, England's coach.
"The good thing for Andrew and England is that he is on the park bowling. He got four wickets in a Twenty20 game on Friday, which is great. We will be sensible about it [Flintoff's selection] because we know that you have to be bowling fit and match fit as well as getting the injury right. So far we have done everything right – we have taken our time, and that is right because he has worked so hard to get himself back on the park. He is enjoying his cricket but the first thing for him is to get back playing, starting with the big game against Sussex."
How Kevin Pietersen, captaining England's one-day side for the first time at Lord's on Saturday, would have loved to have had the services of Flintoff to call on. Pietersen did not and England fell to another disappointing defeat to New Zealand, a loss that gave the Black Caps a comfortable 3-1 series victory.
It was nothing less than New Zealand deserved, and the margin would have been greater, 4-1, but for England deliberately slowing down their over-rate in the second match at Edgbaston, a tactic that prevented a positive result.
Back to back series defeats to New Zealand have brought England's one-day plans to a shuddering halt and plummeted them down to seventh in the world rankings. Only the West Indies, Bangladesh, Ireland, Zimbabwe and Kenya now sit below Paul Collingwood's side. That England, who have greater resources and play more domestic limited-over cricket than virtually all of their competitors, languish in such a position is a disgrace. At the end of 2007, following encouraging wins over India at home and Sri Lanka away, England at long last seemed to be making progress, but it has proved to be a false dawn.
There has been the occasional performance since, especially in Twenty20 cricket, to suggest that all is not lost, but these bright spots come along far too infrequently. The root of England's problem is their batting. The bowling, overall, has been pretty good.
New Zealand's highest score of the series was 266, the total they posted at Lord's during Saturday's 51-run defeat. Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann have been England's best performers, well supported by Collingwood, and occasionally James Anderson.
England's batting performance against New Zealand must be challenging the patience of the selectors, who name their squad for the first Test against South Africa and a 30-man provisional squad for September's Champions Trophy on Thursday. The problem is not the failure of England's batsmen to get a start; in the five games there were 17 scores greater than 20.
It is the inability of Ian Bell, Luke Wright, Ravi Bopara, Collingwood and Pietersen to go on and post potentially match-winning innings of 70 or more. Of the 17 scores in excess of 20 only one – Pietersen's hundred at Chester-le-Street – was greater than 70. Unsurprisingly, England won the game.
Moores, like his predecessor Duncan Fletcher, puts it down to inexperience but New Zealand have several green players in their squad and it has not stopped them. The malaise is the fault of everyone involved in English cricket – the England and Wales Cricket Board for organising its 50-over tournament at the start of the season when the pitches are fresh and the ball is nipping around, the counties for not training their professional staff correctly and the players for not showing the necessary desire to improve their game or the rigour to deal with tough situations.
Until these three areas are addressed England's one-day cricket will continue to stutter along like Del Boy's Robin Reliant.
Scoreboard from Lord's
England won toss
J M How c Bopara b Broad 22
†B B McCullum c Swann b Anderson 23
L R P Taylor c Ambrose b Broad 4
S B Styris not out 87
D R Flynn b Swann 35
J D P Oram c Broad b Swann 52
G D Elliott not out 23
Extras (lb13 w7) 20
Total (for 5, 50 overs) 266
Fall: 1-39 2-54 3-71 4-124 5-201
Did not bat: *D L Vettori, K D Mills, T G Southee, M R Gillespie.
Bowling: Sidebottom 10-0-52-0; Anderson 10-0-46-1; Broad 10-1-50-2; Wright 6-0-36-0; Swann 10-0-33-2; Bopara 1-0-6-0; Shah 3-0-30-0
I R Bell lbw b Gillespie 27
A N Cook c McCullum b Southee 24
*K P Pietersen c Oram b Southee 6
R S Bopara b Vettori 30
O A Shah c Sub b Southee 69
L J Wright b Vettori 6
†T R Ambrose c Sub b Vettori 2
G P Swann c McCullum b Mills 12
S C J Broad c Flynn b Mills 5
R J Sidebottom not out 10
J M Anderson c Oram b Gillespie 2
Extras (b1 lb10 w10 nb1) 22
Total (47.5 overs) 215
Fall: 1-53 2-60 3-86 4-101 5-130 6-138 7-164 8-186 9-209
Bowling: Mills 9-1-55-2; Gillespie 9.5-2-29-2; Oram 6-0-22-0; Southee 9-0-49-3; Vettori 10-1-32-3; Styris 4-0-17-0.
Umpires: S J Davis and N J Llong.
Sunday, 15 June: England 307-5 ( 50.0 overs ). New Zealand 193 ( 42.5 overs )
England beat New Zealand by 114 runs
Wednesday, 18 June: England 162 ( 24.0 overs ). New Zealand 127-2 ( 19.0 overs ). No result. Rain stopped play
Saturday, 21 June: England 160 (46.2 overs). New Zealand 182 ( 50.0 overs ).
New Zealand beat England by 22 runs
Wednesday, 25 June: England 245 (49.4 overs). New Zealand 246-9 ( 50.0 overs). New Zealand beat England by 1 wicket
Saturday, 28 June: England 215 (47.5 overs). New Zealand 266-5 (50.0 overs). New Zealand beat England by 51 runs