James Lawton: All right, said Fred?
Published 07/08/2009 | 00:00
There may never have been in big-time sport a dawn more testing, more questioning than the one that faces Andrew Flintoff this morning.
It is not about an adrenalin rush, a call to arms by a great, worshipping crowd. It's a lot lonelier than that. It's a man in a room, one of the endless strange ones he has known in his career, looking at himself in a way he has maybe never been obliged to do before.
He has to separate himself from his hopes and ambitions and, most of all, his optimism.
He has to answer the question that is gripping his team, the sporting nation — and, no doubt, to a large degree, his Australian opponents.
He has to tell himself, at a time which has rarely, if ever, mattered more to his team, whether he can truly believe that he can go for another five days. No one could envy his decision-making. His blood is up, whatever the testing of other parts of his body says, and he also knows that, as a Test cricketer who has come to dominate so much of this summer, his time is very short indeed. Here this morning he confronts the most biting of all the dilemmas, the one that says, ‘Now or maybe never'.
His physical courage has long passed muster, and it flashed again a few days ago at Edgbaston when he scored 74 swashbuckling runs despite a right knee which, had it been a door hinge, would have cried out for a whole tin of oil.
Yet this morning a different kind of nerve and competitive honesty are required.
Yesterday the England captain Andrew Strauss said that Flintoff's own verdict on whether he can get through the next five days would be a big factor in the final selection. This puts a mighty onus on Flintoff levelling on all he has learnt about his body over the last few years.
The greatest problem, of course, is the balancing of desire and reality, of emotion and practicality.
Here, you sense that the Aussies may have something of an edge in those latter departments. Certainly, they have resisted so far the passionate declarations of fitness made by their own superhero, Brett Lee, and reading between the lines of captain Ricky Ponting yesterday the veteran paceman seems likely to be disappointed again when the teams are posted this morning.
While Ponting stressed the value of a bowler of Lee's quality and experience, he was unswerving about the importance of match fitness.
When the medics said that further cortisone shots for Flintoff were out of the question without putting into severe jeopardy his post-Test career as a Twenty20 superstar, the pressure was piled on the England man to make the right decision both for himself and his team.
This morning's decision, however it is reached, is utterly central to the fate of the team. If Flintoff pushes back the odds and makes a match-winning contribution it will be an achievement of a dazzling order, something to put alongside the feats of the man with whom he has been compared for so much of his career, Sir Ian Botham.
But of course there is the other one, not tantalising but nightmarish — the possibility of Flintoff the hero becoming the passenger.
Either way, we are surely talking about the uttering of the bravest words of a demanding summer.