Leeds:England captain Andrew Strauss said the team would not rush a decision on whether Andrew Flintoff was fit to play in the fourth Ashes Test, despite how it might affect the rest of the squad.
England fans are desperate for Flintoff, the pace bowling hero of their side's second Test win over Australia at Lord's and their batting star of the drawn third Test at Edgbaston, to play when the fourth match of the Ashes series starts here at Headingley from Friday.
However, Flintoff has been troubled by a right knee injury which has already required several pain-killing injections and doubts remain over whether the 31-year-old can last the five days in Leeds in what he has said will be his final Test series.
Flintoff bowled for 35 minutes during England's practice session here today and afterwards Strauss, asked about the all-rounder's availability, told reporters, "At this stage it's impossible to know.
"It's not necessarily the pain he experiences while he's bowling, it's about the swelling and pain afterwards."
Reflecting on Flintoff's bowling stint, Strauss said, "He certainly got the ball through. He didn't look he was quite at 100 per cent but sometimes a bowler doesn't want to hit 100 per cent the day before the game.
"It's more about how he is feeling and until I've spoken to him it's hard for me to say."
And Strauss insisted he would have the strength of character to tell Flintoff he'd been ruled out.
"When you are captain of the team you are motivated by what's right for the team and if him playing is going to have a detrimental effect on the team, then it's wrong for us to make that decision on sentimental grounds.
"I think Fred would appreciate that himself.
"The last thing he wants is to play and not be able to fulfil a role in the game. I think he'll be very honest with us and sentimentality is pushed to the back of all our minds."
England have several options if Flintoff is unfit.
The uncapped Jonathan Trott could be given a debut to stiffen the batting while either one of pace bowlers Stephen Harmison or Ryan Sidebottom could be recalled in a five-man attack.
But Strauss admitted the uncertainty caused by doubts over Flintoff's fitness was far from ideal for his 14-man squad.
"In situations like this you just tell people to prepare to play. It's not an ideal situation but that is the situation we are in."
Asked whether England were leaning towards six batsmen or four bowlers if Flintoff was ruled out, Strauss said: "I'm not prepared to say at this stage. It's a big if and an issue we want to keep our cards close to our chest on."
Pressed on whether England could bowl Australia out twice with just four bowlers, Strauss replied: "If they bowl very well."
Victory at Headingley would see England regain the Ashes they surrendered 5-0 in Australia in 2006/07 after their 2-1 series win on home soil in 2005.
And if they avoid defeat in either this match or the final Test at the Oval, that would also see England to a series win.
"We've got two Test matches to go and we need to win one of them so drawing Test matches is the last thing on our minds," Strauss said.
"A win here and it's all over so it's not very difficult to be in a positive frame of mind.
"But sometimes the closer you are to something the harder it is to achieve it and we'll only achieve it by putting the Australia team under a lot of pressure," he added.
"So from our point of view, it's one step at a time."