After their winter of discontent, England have a number of pressing decisions to make, even after opting for a change in coach. Michael Vaughan’s latest injury, likely to keep him out for at least one Test, has re-opened the perennial captaincy debate, although it is hard to see beyond Andrew Strauss. But Peter Moores must now ponder whether Andrew Flintoff is a) good enough to bat at number six and b) fit enough to be one of only four bowlers. If the answer to both questions is no then it would defy rationale for Flintoff to play in the First Test.
Of course, England want Flintoff in their side, for he offers proven match-winning pedigree with bat and ball. It is just that he seems a man either completely jaded and has not even approached his best form, with bat or ball, since the India tour in early 2006. His batting has totally disintegrated, and is bereft of either confidence or any form of coherent thinking. He looks totally confused, and is incapable of doing anything other than blocking unconvincingly or attacking, normally at the expense of his wicket. All winter long, he has played only two knocks that have convinced – a well-judged 89 in the Fifth Test and 72* in a ODI at Hobart. Those innings excepted he has, in truth, looked little like a number seven, let alone a number six.
Meanwhile his bowling has remained lion-hearted, albeit seldom incisive, and concerns over his ankle forced England to play five bowlers in the Ashes – with hindsight it was a terrible decision, leaving England terribly exposed in both disciplines.
In Test cricket, going in a batsman down is almost the equivalent of playing with a man down in football – and this effect is particularly great given it has been a long time since numbers seven, eight and nine have convinced for England. Playing Matt Prior as six, as some have suggested, would be ridiculous; he is nowhere near being one of England’s top six batsmen. Meanwhile, the inconsistency of Messrs Mahmood, Plunkett and Anderson means there is little to be gained from playing a fifth bowler.
England would be best served, then, by playing their best six batsmen, their best keeper-batsman, and their best four bowlers – of which Flintoff clearly is one – and getting 10 overs a day from the likes of Pietersen, Vaughan and Collingwood. Flintoff would offer immense destructive potential at number seven; relieved of some pressure, he may be able to regain confidence and play with more freedom. But, if he is not fit enough to form part of a four-man attack, then it would be far better all round for Flintoff to regain form and appetite for the game at Lancashire.
At this stage, my Test XI for the West Indies series would be:
Shah (probably replaced by Vaughan when he returns)
Flintoff (if not fit, then either Broad or Plunkett)