Fred falls victim to punishing schedule

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There was a moment in Lahore on Friday when Kamran Akmal, a 23-year-old wicket-keeper with a modest batting average, whacked Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff for a straight six.

This took Pakistan’s total closer to 600, and Flintoff’s bowling figures further towards infinity. He wore an expression like a boxer who has just gone down for the third time against the champ.

But this was Andrew Flintoff. The Andrew Flintoff. He’s meant to be the champ. England’s Ashes hero. Singing star. Nouveau mega-millionaire and role model. Dead cert for BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

When a referee fears that a boxer may have been pummelled too much, he is supposed to ask a simple question to test for brain damage like: “What town are we in?” But Flintoff is an England cricketer. How would he know what town he’s in? He will know he’s in a hotel, which looks like any other, that there’s a cricket ground and – in the unattainable distance – an airport.

Actually, Flintoff got Kamran’s wicket shortly afterwards, for 154. And earlier, his partner, Mohammad Yousuf, had gone for 223 after the pair had achieved Pakistan’s all-time record sixth-wicket stand of 336.

Later, England, needing a trifling 348 to avoid an innings defeat, made a passable stab at holding out. They finished the fourth day on 121 for two, with Ian Bell unbeaten on 60. So a draw remained a possible result, as well as a Pakistan win – although Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, has conceded that, with England 1-0 down, the series is lost.

The result is not the issue, though. England have to look at what lies ahead, define their key objectives and decide how they are going to nurture their stars through it all.

After this Test ends, all this 11 who are still upright (except Bell, on standby, and Matthew Hoggard, not wanted) are expected to be on parade for five one-day internationals that will keep them going until Christmas. They get a break then before leaving for India in late February – but after that comes a run of 14 Test matches and up to 20 one-day internationals before the end of 2006.

Yet there are only two priorities: retaining the Ashes in Australia next winter (tough but plausible) and winning the World Cup in the West Indies in April 2007 (very tough, and less plausible). on Friday Flintoff was so knackered his pace was getting down towards the levels permitted by motorway speed cameras. He can’t do everything, and England must decide what they need him to do most, and adjust his curriculum accordingly.

Flintoff has been done down by the unyielding Pakistani pitches, by the way his life has been turned upside down by the overwhelming demands of celebrity and, above all, by cricket’s schedule. Looking back, it is a shame that he could not have had a headache or groin strain instead of going to Australia, playing for the World XI in the Superseries which flopped, and robbed him of much-needed recovery time. Flintoff himself thinks that.

There is speculation now that his ankle might be bothering him again. Michael Vaughan is going home for the birth of his second child, and to have his knee checked. He may or may not come back. Ashley Giles is having his hip treated. The wheels are not yet falling off England’s triumphant team, but the tread is wearing thin, the hubcaps are starting to rattle – and right now the whole team is deflated.

The play on Friday was merely commentary on Pakistan’s brilliant Day 3. In the morning, Yousuf and Karam upped the tempo to around a run a ball. When Yousuf finally got out, after his third Test double hundred, that merely brought in his wounded captain, Inzamam-ul-Haq, to resume his innings, 24 hours after he was first prepared to trudge heroically back to the fray. Time had healed the old warrior to such an extent he blazed his way to 97 until run out by Vaughan, just about the only fielder close enough to see the stumps, never mind hit them.

Rather too transparently, Inzamam declared when his century became unobtainable. But it was nice timing, because it allowed Shoaib Akhtar one over before lunch, which he used to get Marcus Trescothick plumb lbw. Vaughan soon followed when he misread Shoaib’s slower ball. Shoaib continued to worry and confuse England with his variations of pace, and hit Bell on the arm fending off a chest-high beamer. It obviously hurt like heck, even if it came at 70mph rather than 90 but, afterwards, Bell was too full of professional praise for Shoaib’s skill to whinge.

Bell came through the test well, as did Paul Collingwood, and the second half of the day belonged to England. But they had it all to do again on Saturday.

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