BIRMINGHAM, August 4 – Australia captain Ricky Ponting tried to put the boot into England by saying the fitness of the home side's star all-rounder Andrew Flintoff was "going downhill pretty quickly".There are only three days between the third Ashes Test, which ended in a draw here at Edgbaston on Monday, and the start of the fourth match of the series at Headingley on Friday.
The injury-prone Flintoff, who plans to bow out of Test cricket after the Ashes, has recently been struggling with a knee problem which requires extensive ice treatment.
He looked anything but hampered at Lord’s where he bowled England to a 115-run second Test win that put them 1-0 up in the five-match Ashes campaign. But it was a different story at Edgbaston for the 31-year-old Lancashire quick who, although he top scored with 74 in England’s only innings of the match, did not take a single wicket.
Flintoff was powerless to prevent Australia, who at lunch on Monday’s final day were still in danger of losing a match where, in effect, two days had been lost to bad weather, from ultimately closing out the contest in comfortable fashion thanks mainly to vice-captain Michael Clarke’s unbeaten hundred.
‘Fred’ bowled just 11 overs on Monday after clearly looking less than 100 percent while running between the wickets.
Several pundits said before this series started that for England to have a chance of regaining the Ashes both Kevin Pietersen and Flintoff had to remain fit throughout.
But Pietersen’s series was declared over after Lord’s because of an Achilles injury and Ponting questioned whether England had it in them to absorb Flintoff’s absence as well.
"He bowled so well at Lord’s, and what we have seen Flintoff give them with the bat as well was pretty impressive, so having Pietersen and him out of the same side would leave two pretty big gaps in their make-up," Ponting told a post-match news conference.
"Visibly you could see he went downhill pretty quickly through the course of this game, so his injury is probably starting to take a bit more effect than what we actually realised.
"But we will prepare as if he is going to play and see what happens on the morning of the game."
England captain Andrew Strauss meanwhile insisted Flintoff’s relatively reduced bowling stint was more of a reflection of the pitch conditions and the state of the game rather than of major concerns over his fitness.
"I suppose at the back of my mind I’m conscious that when the conditions aren’t really helping him, there’s no point in tearing him to death.
"That’s the reason he didn’t bowl in the final session and we’re still very optimistic he’ll be okay for Headingley.
"There is obviously some soreness there, but I don’t think there’s anything that has deteriorated massively over the course of the game."
Flintoff, the star of England’s 2005 Ashes series win, has made it clear how keen he is to be completely involved in this season’s clash with Australia.
But Strauss said a very simple selection rule would apply in his case.
"If he’s fit to play then we want to play him and if he’s not then we won’t.
"The Headingley Test is a massive Test. If we win there we win the Ashes and that goes for both the final two games.
"We’ve had to play without him plenty of times over the last two years so it wouldn’t be anything new to us.
"Generally the bowlers have stepped up when he hasn’t played, but at the moment he’s in great nick with both ball and bat so we don’t want to play without him, if we can help it."
Clarke’s 103 not out, his second hundred of the series after his 136 at Lord’s and his 12th in 50 Tests overall, helped Australia close on 375 for five with England still to have a second innings.
Together with Marcus North (96) he shared a fifth-wicket stand of 185 that ended any hope England had of going 2-0 up with two to play after the touring side started the day still 25 runs behind with eight wickets standing.
It is more than 20 years since Australia were still behind this far into an Ashes series but Ponting said: "I think all the guys in our dressing room don’t mind being in a position like this.
"That is the thing about the Australian teams – it is when we face the most adversity that we play our best cricket."
Meanwhile fast bowler Brett Lee has not given up hope of playing in this series despite missing the first three Tests with a rib injury while Ponting was upbeat about Brad Haddin’s prospects after the wicket-keeper was ruled out of the Edgbaston Test with a finger injury.
England are due to name their fourth Test squad later on Tuesday.