Saturday, May 10, 2008

Selectors face Flintoff decision

Will he, won't he? Andrew Flintoff hasn't played Test cricket for 17 months but recalling him at Lord's would be a risk...

Rarely has an England squad caused so much debate over one name - with less than 24 hours to go before the squad for the first Test against New Zealand is named, it is still almost impossible to say whether Andrew Flintoff will be recalled. His early-season form since returning from a fourth ankle operation has ranged from the utterly convincing with the ball to the utterly woeful with the bat.

Not surprisingly Flintoff has been talking himself up. "I definitely feel I could play a Test match now," he told The Sun. "I've missed a lot of international cricket in the past, so I'm itching to play for England once more." Team-mates and opponents have also been queuing up to sing his praises, including Justin Langer saying he's "the best fast bowler in the world" and could bat at No.11, to Marcus Trescothick, Paul Collingwood and his Lancashire captain Stuart Law all backing his case.

"I think that over to Collingwood was the best working-over of a world-class batsman I've seen for a long time," said Law. "Colly's a good player, but Freddie made him look almost second rate. That's just the quality of Andrew Flintoff. With the ball in his hand and the bit between his teeth, he had a point to prove. I don't think it would have mattered if it had been Ricky Ponting or Brian Lara - they would have felt the heat."

Whether Flintoff is selected or not will give an indication of his future role for England. He is adamant he remains a batsman who bowls, but no one else believes that line any more. His batting has slipped steadily since the 2006 India tour and this season's form doesn't suggest a corner is about to be turned. Three Championship ducks on the trot - including two first-ballers - have left him with precious little time in the middle.

If he is recalled for the first Test it will be his bowling form and fitness that would have swayed the decision. He would be part of a four-man attack including three quick bowlers (the others being Ryan Sidebottom and Stuart Broad) alongside Monty Panesar and be expected to take on a major workload, perhaps more than 20 overs a day. It would be an admission from the selectors that Flintoff's batting form doesn't matter.

Some, including the likes of Langer, argue that if he's your best bowler that is the way it should be. No one was ever concerned about Glenn McGrath's lack of runs. However, the situation with Flintoff is muddied by the lengthy, ongoing nature of his ankle problems and the fact that the he was meant to be the allrounder who balances the team. He has tried three times to return from operations, the last aborted comeback ending after the World Twenty20 in South Africa. It would be a huge gamble for the selectors to throw their lot in with Flintoff as a bowler, even with one eye on next year's Ashes.

And it isn't as though there is a desperate need to rush Flintoff back to face New Zealand, although England have recent experience of coming unstuck against them. But an attack of Sidebottom, Broad and probably James Anderson should be enough to dispatch the visitors and would give the team that won the final two Tests of the previous series another chance.

Anderson is the member of that trio under threat after a profligate display in Napier. His form for Lancashire has been mixed, but nine wickets against Durham came at the right time and he has a good Test record a Lord's. Last year he claimed seven wickets against India and also bagged five on his debut in 2003.

Matthew Hoggard will come back into the frame have a solid start for Yorkshire although he still appeared to lack some zip for England Lions. The consensus is that he was unlucky to be dropped after a poor performance in Hamilton and, although there is no automatic route back for him despite 248 wickets, he would be a solid presence in the squad in case a bowler pulls up injured.

While so much attention has been paid to Flintoff's batting form, a few of the certain picks for Lord's haven't been setting the world alight. Michael Vaughan has a top score of 42, but that is a positive run-spree compared to Paul Collingwood (32 runs in five innings for Durham) and Collingwood has also caused a few concerns after needing an injection in his shoulder. A Collingwood injury would make Flintoff's recall an even greater risk because Collingwood's medium-pace would help share the workload. If batting cover is needed the choice would be between Owais Shah, forever waiting for another chance, and the in-form Ravi Bopara.

Possible England 12 Michael Vaughan (capt), Alastair Cook, Andrew Strauss, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, Paul Collingwood, Tim Ambrose (wk), Stuart Broad, Ryan Sidebottom, Monty Panesar, James Anderson, Matthew Hoggard.