BIRMINGHAM, July 29 – England head into the third Ashes Test here at Edgbaston confident of all-rounder Andrew Flintoff's participation but without Kevin Pietersen against an Australia side looking to level the series at 1-1.
Flintoff’s aggressive spell on the final day of the second Test sealed England’s 115-run win as they defeated Australia in an Ashes match at Lord’s for the first time in 75 years.
But soon after that match, batting star Pietersen gave in to a longstanding Achilles problem and announced he would take no further part in the series.
Flintoff, whose career has been blighted by injuries, said before the match at Lord’s that this would be his final Test series.
A key figure during his country’s 2005 Ashes triumph, and in particular at Edgbaston, where England won by just two runs, doubts persist over whether Flintoff’s knee injury will hold up for the final three matches of the series.
The dilemma confronting England captain Andrew Strauss was summed up by two contrasting headlines in British newspapers on Tuesday, with the Daily Express opting for ‘I’ll flog Freddie’ and The Times going with ‘How Strauss aims to ease load for Flintoff’.
In practice, Strauss will be prepared to use Flintoff as and when appropriate. "We don’t want Fred bowling millions of overs when conditions are not in his favour," Strauss said.
"But if we get into a winning situation and he is the right bowler to take us to victory, we will be expecting to see him put in the same sort of effort as at Lord’s."
Flintoff himself has been sleeping with a special compression machine on his troublesome joint and Australia vice-captain Michael Clarke was not surprised that England were pulling out all the stops to get him on the field.
"Andrew Flintoff is an amazing player," said Clarke.
"He is always up for the big contests. He seems to perform under pressure and no doubt he will be ready on Thursday to give us more stick."
England’s win at Edgbaston four years ago was preceded by the sight of Australia fast bowling great Glenn McGrath being ruled out of the match during the warm-up on the first day after treading on a stray cricket ball.
There were worrying echoes for England of that freak injury when Ian Bell, drafted in to replace Pietersen, turned his right ankle during a football warm-up on Monday.
He was seen on Tuesday on the outfield at his Warwickshire home ground in full batting kit in what appeared to be a test of his ankle’s ability to respond to the strain of running between wickets.
England’s squad does not contain a spare batsman after the selectors made clear that Bell was their man to replace Pietersen.
Whereas Pietersen, especially against Australia, exudes confidence, Bell has often exuded timidity.
Bell a veteran of 46 Tests, has missed England’s last eight after being dropped in the Caribbean and his average against Australia is a modest 25 from 10 Tests
Clarke said Australia had been given a lift by Pietersen’s absence.
"Anytime a very good player is not playing, like Kevin Pietersen, it gives the team a boost but Ian is a very good player himself."
Ashes holders Australia are again set to be without fast bowler Brett Lee because of the side injury that ruled him out of the first two Tests.
That wouldn’t be an issue if left-arm quick Mitchell Johnson wasn’t struggling so much for line and length.
The accurate Stuart Clark is waiting in the wings but the signs are that Australia, despite the opinion of former captain Allan Border, will persist with Johnson for at least one more match.
It may be that Peter Siddle has to make way if Clark is to get a game.
Opening batsman Phillip Hughes, who has been struggling for runs in the Tests, found some form during last weekend’s warm-up win over Northamptonshire.
But it was a collective first innings batting failure at Lord’s, where they were bowled out for 215, that put Australia on the back foot.
Australia captain Ricky Ponting – who needs just 25 to surpass Border as his country’s leading Test run scorer of all time – will be keen to prove that was a mere blip.
And Clarke was adamant England would now see the best of Australia.
"We play this game for one reason, to win," he said. "We play our best cricket when the chips are down."