The Freddie dilemma: how to balance risk and reward

It was during a rain break in Antigua in 1998 that the England team had a heated debate about the ability of bowlers to control seam movement. Curtly Ambrose had instigated the discussion on a pitch not too dissimilar to that being used in the current Test match between South Africa and England here.

It was during a rain break in Antigua in 1998 that the England team had a heated debate about the ability of bowlers to control seam movement. Curtly Ambrose had instigated the discussion on a pitch not too dissimilar to that being used in the current Test match between South Africa and England here.

Wet weather had delayed the start of the game, and on the first evening the great West Indian fast bowler seamed everything into England's right-handed batsmen. But then, on the second morning, Ambrose consistently nipped the ball away. When the rain returned, Alec Stewart asked the England bowlers whether they could control the way the ball seamed.

All but one of the bowlers said no. Andrew Caddick was the only one who felt he could control the direction in which the ball seamed, insisting he could do so nine times out of 10. An argument ensued, and eventually I went to the West Indies' dressing-room to ask Ambrose whether he had deliberately bowled as he had.

The Antiguan said his gameplan revolved around getting the ball in the business area and hitting the seam. He didn't particularly care which way the ball moved as long as it did something. Courtney Walsh, another legend of the game, agreed with every word his opening partner said.

At the time, the pair had taken more than 700 Test wickets, so that was good enough for me, and I reported my findings. Caddick was not happy, especially when he realised I had told them his views.

But what is it about fast bowlers that allows some of them to seam the ball more than others? Obviously you have to hit the stitching which keeps the four pieces of leather together, but surely if the pitch conditions are conducive every fast bowler should be able to move the ball about.

This is where a bowler's action enters the equation, and it is the reason why Andrew Flintoff has been able to extract more movement from a helpful Centurion pitch than any other England bowler.

Stephen Harmison has struggled to hit the cut strip on this tour - let alone the seam - so we shall ignore him for the moment, while Matthew Hoggard and Simon Jones both try to swing the ball. In an effort to do this they keep their hands behind the ball and at the moment of release they pull down on the seam. This allows the ball to rotate backwards as it travels towards the batsman and increases the chance of swing movement.

But the fact that the ball is rotating backwards means that - like a back-spinner or flipper from a leg-spinner - it skids off the pitch on to the bat. Flintoff's fingers, however, stay almost clawlike on top of the ball. This reduces the chance of backward rotation and is one of the principal reasons why he rarely swings the ball.

Yet the high action of the Lancashire all-rounder, along with his method of release, does allow him to bowl the ball into the wicket rather than along it. The ball spends a split second longer on the pitch, enabling the seam of the ball to grip the surface and movement to be achieved.

Flintoff bowled superbly yesterday. Battling with a side strain and an injured left foot, he kept his gameplan simple and aggressively hit a good length. He broke the hosts' opening partnership in his first over and continued to check their progress with searching spells of quality bowling.

Flintoff has always had a simple approach to bowling, but only in the past 12 months has he begun to reap the rewards his effort has deserved. He has taken at least one wicket in every innings of this series, and his series tally of 21 is 50 per cent higher than his previous best.

Unfortunately there is a downside to this: Flintoff's body seems to be falling apart, and the volume of overs he bowls appears to affect his form with the bat. The batting is not a major problem; the runs will return. But the ability of his frame to cope with the workload placed on him is.

In this and the previous Test the 27-year-old has played with a side strain and has again aggravated the foot complaint that kept him out of action for several weeks in 2004. Michael Vaughan would love to reduce Flintoff's toil, but while he remains the most consistent bowler, the ball will keep finding itself in his sweaty right hand.

England were right to risk playing him here and Johannesburg, because winning a series here is a significant achievement. But Flintoff and the selectors have a major decision to make at the end of this series.

The bone spur on his left heel will not go away, no matter how many cortisone injections the doctors put in it, and surgery is the only cure. It will take Flintoff three or four months to recover from the operation, but he still has plenty of time to be fit for the Ashes in the summer.

However, if the selectors become greedy and ask their talisman to play in the one-day series which starts next weekend, Flintoff's problems could resurface when they least want them to. I don't think that is a risk worth taking.

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