One-day series: Flintoff's career reaches crossroads

Short and long-term concerns for England over talismanic all-rounder's future after ankle problem flares up again. By Stephen Brenkley
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England's worst fears about Andrew Flintoff's future began to be realised yesterday. A mere seven matches and 55.5 overs after a third ankle operation the all-rounder is again suffering extreme soreness in the joint. He will almost certainly not play in the fifth, potentially decisive match of the NatWest Series in Leeds today and will probably also miss the finaltwo games.

None of that was formally announced yesterday because scans on the vexatious left foot were inconclusive. According to the official statement from the England and Wales Cricket Board, "ongoing investigation and assessment will be carried out" before any decision about today or thereafter.

But the harsh truth is that Flintoff's career as England's totemic all-rounder is on the line. It seems inexplicablethat, after three encounterswith surgeons and several courses of careful and painstaking rehabilitation, he is still experiencing such difficulty.

It was perhaps understandable that England, 3-1 up in the series, refused to dramatise the state of affairs, but the player himself looked justifiably miserable at practice at Headingley yesterday. He batted in the nets but did not bowl and took only a peripheral part in the touch rugby session.

Flintoff has had operations on the ankle in each of the past three years. Each time it has let him down again shortly afterwards. In retrospect, it is remarkable that he managed to go through the Ashes series last winter, when he was England's captain. Never once did he betray the severe physical discomfort he was in at times.

It may be that the latest setback is some kind of post-operative reaction that can be easily rectified, but recent history suggests otherwise. There will no doubt be meetings with consultants in the near future, whether he is patched up this week or not. But the prospect of England being able to bowl him in one game and not the next or for him to give up bowling completely looms larger.

The pity of it all is only compounded by the manner of his latest return. Having missed the whole of the international summer, he has come back splendidly for the one-day series against India. If his batting has been notably ragged, his bowling in the three matches he has played – he missed one because of a knee injury – has been a masterclass of one-day swing and seam bowling, as demonstrated by figures of 1 for 12, 5 for 56 and 1 for 31 from a total of 27 overs.

This has made him still more integral to an England improvement that has bordered on the spectacular. Without him, it is much harder to achieve the balance in the team, though it helps that Ravinder Bopara has made such exemplary progress. Chris Tremlett is likely to be called up as the extra bowler.

England have not yet reached the point where they must contemplate the unthinkable – the future without Flintoff – but they will recognise that it cannotgo on like this. As the one-day captain, Paul Collingwood, spoke about the side's future yesterday it was presumably with Flintoff very much in it.

"On paper India were way ahead of us," Collingwood said. "We have got miles to go and though we have done some exceptional things, we're not getting carried away here. We have scored nearly 300 runs or more in three of the games, which is a massive step forward. Our bowling as a unit has come on in leaps and bounds. The two young guys, Stuart Broad and James Anderson, have shown huge maturity opening the attack against such an experienced side. We are moving forward but we are not there yet."

This was a refreshing assessment of progress so far but there is no doubt that England have surprised everybody with the manner of their cricket. Collingwood has visibly grown in stature and confidence and the squad have been helped rather than hindered by their youth. Collingwood made it clear that it would be difficult for players like Michael Vaughan, the erstwhile captain, to get back in.

"As long as people keep performing and we're winning and progressing it's going to be hard for anybody to get into the side. Hopefully you can get a pretty consistent team going out all the time. If we can build a 15- or 16-man squad around each other all the time, that's healthy."

If Collingwood can lead the side to victory today it will be England's first significant one-day series win since beating India in a three-match series which was used as a warm-up to the Champions Trophy in 2004.

The demands of the job took Collingwood by surprise earlier in the summer when West Indies won the series 2-1. "You learn a lot more about each individual," he said. "It's no longer about your own game, performing your own little role. You learn about all the players, their characters, how to get the best out of them, what not to say to them at certain times. That's going to take hopefully years to learn 100 per cent. It has been exciting."

The maturity of England's play has been remarkable at times and the fact that Bopara and Broad, 22 and 21 years old respectively, won the last match from a position of 114 for 7 exemplified that. They were utterly unflustered in gathering the 99 more runs needed.

Broad is an impressive individual who knows his own mind and his own game. His father, Chris, a player of illustrious achievement, cast doubt on whether Stuart should be selected for England's Test tour of Sri Lanka, suggesting he should not be rushed. "I will have to disagree with him on that," said Broad Junior. "My focus is getting on a Test tour. Every time I get the ball in my hand I see it as a chance to impress. A Test tour is at the front of my mind."

It's not over yet, it has barely started, but maybe that shows that this England one-day team have the right stuff.