Sheer presence of Flintoff sorely missed

The news that Andrew Flintoff was unable to play at Headingley was a grievous one for England, however much they will try to talk up their chances without him.

Just his presence on the field is massive for England, and for the crowd as much as his fellow teammates. Whenever Freddie is thrown the ball by Andrew Strauss, the crowd are on their feet and they really get behind him.

It gets them going, and that is difficult for Australia to contend with, and puts added pressure on them. Now, in this fourth Test, England must live without their talisman and it was always going to be very difficult even before they were bowled out for a mere 102 soon after lunch on day one.

I applaud, however, the decision to bring in Steve Harmison for Flintoff, even though it leaves England with perhaps a batsman light in terms of the balance they really want in their XI.

But in the absence of Freddie, the extra pace and steep bounce of Harmison – if he is as fired up as he says he will be –will be vital for England. He is the one other bowler we have got, besides Flintoff, who can really get the ball up the Australians’ noses.

Picking just four bowlers, with Jonathan Trott drafted in to bat at six, would have been a purely defensive move and I don’t think that would have been right with the Ashes themselves up for grabs at Headingley.

Also, Trott is an unknown quantity at this top level – how good exactly is his technique against the best bowlers? A couple of England Lions tours and some runs at county level are one thing – it is quite another to score big runs in an Ashes Test.

Whatever happens in Leeds, though, England can still win this series and regain the Ashes – so the prize for victory either here or at the Oval is huge, and England must remain positive with that in mind.

It is just so unfortunate – and not good for the contest itself – that England have now found themselves without both Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen. In any Ashes series, you want the very best players available – and the same goes for Australia in terms of Brett Lee’s unfortunate injury.

It must have been tempting to have played Flintoff, even if he could have bowled only a handful of overs. His batting at seven is also a big factor, as he showed at Edgbaston, but Fred has such a big heart that his knee injury must be very bad indeed for him to sit this Test out.

For me, the past 10 days have been particularly interesting, as I was in Australia on family matters. All the Aussies I have met are watching this series with keen interest, but there has been quite a bit of concern out there about the make-up of this Australian team, and whether Ricky Ponting should still be captain.

People are wondering if it is time for Michael Clarke to take over the leadership, so that Ponting can concentrate fully on scoring runs and therefore benefit the team more in that way.

Also, there has been confusion surrounding Mitchell Johnson’s position in the side, and puzzlement over why Stuart Clark has not been in the team for the first three Tests of the series.

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