MARTIN SAMUEL: Flintoff must put the Ashes before cash

Andrew Flintoff left the field with the look of a man who had just completed a marathon only to be told he had left his car keys back at the start.

Andrew Strauss, England's captain, had the look of a man who then went back to get them, only to find they were locked in the boot. Test cricket can do that to you. Particularly when you have the nagging suspicion you made a mistake.

The phenomenally dogged last-wicket resistance of Daren Powell and Fidel Edwards notwithstanding, the magnificent partnership of Ramnaresh Sarwan and Shivnarine Chanderpaul taken fully into account, the injury to Flintoff factored in as mitigation, England still blew it here.

Andrew Flintoff

Water torture: Andrew Flintoff is desperately in need of a rest.

They blew it at the end of day three and the start of day four when, more than 300 runs ahead, night-watchman Jimmy Anderson was inserted after the loss of an early wicket and then allowed to fiddle about for an hour the next morning. England trod water for far too long on Wednesday and on Thursday, as puddles settled on the covers, they were made to pay.

The hour lost to rain was a bad break, true, but it was hardly one that could not have been foreseen. It has been showery in Antigua since England arrived and two days of nets were lost to wet weather last week. So Strauss knew he needed to get a shift on. Instead he allowed his team to dawdle and lose the momentum needed to level the series.

This was not a defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, as in Adelaide, but it surely felt like one. On the surface, the burden was all on West Indies, who needed to bat through the day to survive. In reality, it was shared, with an England team that needed desperately to close out this game if the demons of Kingston were to be exorcised.

To come here in chaotic circumstances, after being skittled for 51 in Jamaica was difficult enough; and England rose to that. To get in a strong winning position was both blessing and curse, however, because once there was the possibility of victory, if England were unable to take the seven wickets required it would be a crushing psychological blow. So it proved.

It was worse, in fact, because with Flintoff bowling, as Strauss had it, 'on one leg', before undergoing a scan on a hip muscle injury, England may have to face up to the remainder of the tour without him. That is a negative for the team - and a fresh challenge for the beleaguered ECB.

The issue around Flintoff will be a defining one. At a time when the focus on cricket's new money has never been greater - with the collapse of the circus around Allen Stanford, the American financier and, until his implication in an $8 billion fraud, the new beau of the ECB - the reaction to Flintoff 's determination to play in the Indian Premier League when this tour ends will say much about the future of modern cricket.

Geoff Miller

England selector Geoff Miller admits that any player who comes back injured from the IPL would face criticism.

What will come first, the money and the show or Test cricket and England? In Flintoff's current physical state, it would appear the two are no longer compatible.

On the day when Ricky Ponting, captain of Australia, withdrew from his IPL commitments with Kolkata Knight Riders to concentrate on the Ashes series, it became increasingly clear the ECB needs to take proactive action over Flintoff if their credibility in this area is to be preserved.

In conversation last week, Geoff Miller, the national selector, said it would impact badly on any player if he returned injured from the IPL but that is a logical no-man's land. Players cannot be allowed to go while hostage to random factors.

If the ECB has this concern, it should never have given its blessing to the exercise; if it has, it must accept the consequences. Either way, a decision must be made and the case for preventing Flintoff playing for Chennai Super Kings is stronger than ever after yesterday's events.

It could be argued that Ponting has withdrawn to concentrate on his flagging form, although Flintoff's is hardly inspired right now. Even if he was at the peak of his powers, his physical state should preclude decamping east in the one of the few breaks the calendar allows.

If Flintoff flies home from here, a specious argument may be raised that the IPL will then act as a warmup for the Ashes series. Not true.

The international preparation for the Ashes is a brief series against West Indies which begins at Lord's on May 6, and the best preparation for that is a gentle re-introduction to first-class cricket with Lancashire, not the intense, eccentric environment of the IPL.

Andrew Flintoff

Exhausted: Flintoff goes through the pain barrier in Antigua.

The ECB, as Flintoff's contracted employers, have every right to insist he does not go; whether they will be strong enough is another matter. What is certainly true is that, however serious the results of the scan, nobody who saw Flintoff in action yesterday would say this was a man who needed to play more cricket.

Freddie was a trooper, though. Every stride across the surface of the Antigua Recreation Ground appeared to cause a wince of pain and yet he kept going, kept banging them in as best his could, sometimes off a short run, never at his usual pace but always with a whole heart; if only he could apply the same physical determination to his batting, he would make runs every time.

Every now and then he would fire a ball with agonisingly impressive venom and it was possible to forget that this was an athlete on his last leg.

When he came back for a third and final spell, which lasted just one over in fading night, there was a collective will that he should take the fateful winning wicket. It was not to be. Now we will see what is revealed by the scan; what it tells us about Flintoff's hip and what it says about the state of English cricket, too.