Andrew Flintoff featured only briefly during England's training session at Headingley on Wednesday, but Graham Onions is confident the ailing allrounder will be available for the fourth Test. Flintoff, battling an injured right knee, was withheld from all bowling and running drills, but did bat for 20 minutes, a mildly encouraging sign for England.
Such is the concern over Flintoff's fitness that England named an expanded squad for the fourth Test including Jonathan Trott as batting cover, and bowling insurance in the form of Ryan Sidebottom and Steve Harmison. Flintoff's fitness and the condition of the Headingley pitch will determine the eventual make-up of England's XI and no decision is expected until the morning of the match.
Flintoff is determined to round out his Test career with rousing performances at Headingley and The Oval, but whether his knee will allow him to participate, much less excel, remains to be seen. Onions, for his part, was hopeful Flintoff would be cleared to play the fourth Test, but only if he was confident of surviving five days.
"We all know he's a legend," Onions said prior to training. "He's a great person to have in our team. Being totally honest, I think we're stronger with him in the team, but that's only if we're 100% fit. Andrew's going to be very honest. He's going to have a run out today and it's great for him. He's batting and bowling really well. It's a shame his body's in discomfort for the moment but he'll do everything he can to be fit."
Flintoff may have gone wicketless at Edgbaston last week, but still served as an inspiration for his team-mates in the field. Onions said Flintoff's advice and positive reinforcement boosted the spirits of England's younger fast bowlers as they strove to shut the Australians out of the series.
"What was great in the last Test was he got the bowlers together and said, 'We can win this game," Onions said. "He gave us a few reminders at different times what we needed to bowl to different batters. That's Andrew Flintoff. He'll give everything to the team and will do everything he possibly can for England to win the Ashes. He said, 'I know you're all very excited, but just hold your nerve and as long as you keep believing in tough times we'll come out on top.'"
Flintoff's mortgage on the back pages of the nation's newspapers was temporarily lifted at Edgbaston when Onions opened the second day's play with the wickets of Shane Watson and Michael Hussey off consecutive deliveries. Onions also accounted for Ricky Ponting in a spell notable for deft swing and a relentless probing of the pads.
His efforts justified the faith of Geoff Miller's selection panel, which has preferred him over the more seasoned Steve Harmison at Lord's and Edgbaston, and continued a stunning rise to prominence at international level. Onions' eight wickets in this series have come at the unrivalled strike-rate of 41.7, taking his career tally to 18 wickets at 23.50 from four matches.
"It was very special - to get two wickets in two balls (and) to have the captain throw me the ball in the first place was great for me," he said. "Andrew Strauss said at the start, 'You're under no pressure at all, just go out and enjoy yourself'. I'm trying to say that every time I'm out there and go out to bowl. It's the same as with Durham. I'm thoroughly enjoying myself. It's a great time in my career, and I'm not feeling under too much pressure at the moment.
"It does take a little while to find your feet. I'm playing an Ashes series against the best team in the world. I just have to remind myself that. I'm my own biggest critic. But that's me, that's Graham Onions. I push myself hard all the time, whether it's my fifth Test or my 60th Test."
Onions and James Anderson received a none too subtle backhander from Ricky Ponting after the Edgbaston draw over their supposed inability take wickets when the ball does not swing. The England duo combined for nine wickets under heavy Birmingham skies in Australia's first innings, but managed just two over the final five sessions when neither pitch nor atmosphere was providing them assistance.
Onions has played precisely 130 fewer Tests than Ponting, but appeared unruffled by the Australian captain's remarks. Rather, Onions expressed confidence his past experience of playing at Headingley would hold him in good stead.
"We all know that when the ball swings it's massive for us," he said. "If you're just bowling straight against good players you're going to go for runs. As England cricketers we need to make sure that ball swings or does something off the straight or be aggressive. [The second] morning [at Edgbaston] was quite humid. If we get a day like that here - and I've had many days for Durham like that - then the ball does swing.
"I feel as though we're good enough if the ball doesn't swing. I believe, and everyone in the England dressing room believes, we can still beat Australia. That's without the swinging ball and just as using our skills as bowlers. We were close to winning the last Test. We put ourselves in a strong position, and of course it didn't happen. We took a lot of confidence from that."