With the Ashes depending on it, England yesterday hesitated in selecting their most important Test team for four years. To protect their precious 1-0 lead in the series, they gave themselves the options of sticking with a crocked all rounder who can barely walk and is soon to retire, or fielding an uncapped 28-year-old South African batsman.
Such is Andrew Flintoff's influence on the balance of the side that he will be given every chance to demonstrate his fitness, perhaps up to the moment of the toss for the fourth Test which begins at Hedingley on Friday. So likely is his absence with an injured knee, however, that Jonathan Trott, of the Warwickshire middle order, is on red alert stand by.
The squad of 14 that the selectors revealed yesterday illustrated their uncertainty about players' fitness, team composition and pitch conditions. They know they cannot afford to get it wrong. Fast bowlers Stephen Harmison, who is suffering from severe blisters on the base of his feet and Ryan Sidebottom have both been included, but Monty Panesar has been dropped.
If Trott was a surprise choice, it was initially presumed that he would be in the side if Flintoff, who hobbled throughout the last two days of the drawn match at Edgbaston, fails to recover, but team director, Andy Flower insisted that nothing is certain and it seems the selectors really do not know what they’re doing yet.
"No that is not an automatic swap," said Flower. "If Flintoff can't play Trott is an option to bat at six, then we balance the bowling attack thereafter, but we might still go with Stuart Broad at 7, Graeme Swann 8 and three other bowlers. We trust our top six to score the bulk of the runs and the others have the onus of taking the 20 wickets."
It seems definite that Trott will play only if Flintoff withdraws because there would be no question of the Lancashire all-rounder being part of a four-man bowling attack. Equally Trott's call up for the first time to a Test squad illustrates the concerns about Flintoff.
Flower and the England captain Andrew Strauss would then have to decide if four bowlers could bowl out Australia twice and since five of them took only three wickets in three sessions in Birmingham on Monday the conclusion may be obvious.
Creeping into their thoughts, however, will be the retention of England's lead, achieved with the historic victory in the second Test at Lord's. By playing an extra batsman they might think it is worthwhile making it more difficult for Australia to take 20 wickets, which they have not looked like doing since the opening game in Cardiff — and ultimately failed to do so.
Flintoff's state of body is directing team affairs as never before. When he departs forever from Test cricket after the fifth game at The Oval, England will have to decide whether to they think they can seriously win matches with four bowlers or with only five specialist batsmen plus the wicketkeeper.
In 2005, England were leading 2-1 going into the final match at The Oval. Fast swing bowler, Simon Jones was unfit and they were forced to make their first team change of the series. Instead of keeping a five man bowling attack, they chose an extras batsman, Paul Collingwood, whose 72 minutes at the crease in England's second innings were to be vital.
"I am not any the wiser about Fred," said Flower. "He personally is quite bullish about playing , but you never know. He was moving gingerly in the field and we have to leave the decision to the last moment again and just trust him to give us good information about his own body.”