England must ask the hard Flintoff question

ANDREW FLINTOFF... when the going gets tough, he is indispensable.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

What will England do if the unthinkable happens and the hulking all-rounder never recovers from his ankle injury? By David Hopps.

England insist the prognosis is good. Andrew Flintoff's latest ankle injury is not linked to the bone spur problem that has afflicted him for much of the last two years. An exploratory arthroscopy might discover something the MRI scan has missed. All will be well, and he will be fit as a fiddle in no time.

But what if? What if the constant degeneration of Flintoff's ankle really signifies what English cricket dreads — that the hulking all-rounder who has been the embodiment of England's rise to second-ranked Test nation in the world is entering the twilight of his career?

Flintoff will rage against the thought, and the ECB will talk glibly of scaremongering, but Flintoff was realistically out of the West Indies series before the Lord's Test, and they never remotely dared to voice the possibility. A gambler would want decent odds before betting on both Flintoff and Simon Jones charging in for the next Ashes series.

If England's forward planning really is as detailed as they like to imagine, they should today ask the unpalatable question. They can ask it silently, so nobody knows; they can ask it hoping not to need the answer for five years or more; they can deny that they are asking it at all. But they should be asking all the same: "Just who is the next Freddie Flintoff?"

Even the best cricket side in the world, Australia, have agonised over their failure to find a world-class all-rounder. Opinions vary, but a player capable of averaging more than 35 with the bat and under 30 with the ball would be pretty indispensable. In his 66 Tests, Flintoff averages 32 with both. Add high-class slip fielding and a sweat-laden `je ne sais quoi' and it feels much higher than that.


The best Australia have come up with is Shane Watson, a skilful all-rounder of some fragility, not just physical but mental. Australia's desire for Watson to answer their dreams is so overpowering that their captain, Ricky Ponting, one of the finest batsmen ever to draw breath, speaks of him in awestruck terms. Watson might well make a fine one-day all-rounder, but if he is ever a permanent force in the Test side there will be so many judges eating their words that it will resemble cricket's version of Super Size Me.

England can probably fiddle through the summer on four bowlers. This is arguably the weakest West Indies side to visit England since 1939, so the lack of a five-strong attack will cause no alarms. Unless the summer turns pitches startlingly benign, they will probably get away with the same liberties against India, who have yet to appoint a new coach. England can also fiddle through one-day cricket where the likes of Paul Collingwood and even Michael Vaughan can manage a spell.

But when the going gets tough, Flintoff is indispensable. The Ashes series in 2005 was based upon four fast bowlers giving the Australians no respite, with Ashley Giles' slow left-arm in reserve. The development of Monty Panesar might enable England to survive with three fast bowlers, but only if he bowls long containing spells, to the detriment of his development as an attacking bowler.

As for the county circuit, no Flintoff exists. Peter Moores, an England coach who gives it more respect than his predecessor, Duncan Fletcher, would concede that. A long-term solution would be for Matt Prior to bat at six and the young Yorkshire leg-spinner, Adil Rashid, to become an England No. 7, but Shane Warne's leg-spin guru, Terry Jenner, has warned that Rashid needs at least two years to learn the complex art of leg-spin in county cricket.

Every English cricket supporter hopes it will not come to this. There is only one Freddie Flintoff. Or, as Kramer once said in Seinfeld: "Understudies are a very shifty bunch."

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007