A case of carry on doctor after bedroom farce

Countdown to The Ashes: No repeat of previous disastrous tour to Australia as medical staff insist rehabilitation of injured party has been a success
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At least this time they can all run. Considering past recklessness, that alone is reason for optimism in the predictable but fragile squad England have picked to defend the Ashes this winter. But it cannot conceal the enormous risk that the selectors have taken, both with the fate of the tour to Australia and their own reputations. There is equally enormous potential for both to head south with no chance of recovery.

Of the 16 players charged with retaining the most precious prize available to England, six were unfit to play at all at the time they were picked, let alone to play Australia. There were enough clues to suggest that this was precisely what the three-man selection panel would opt for, but the black-and-white reality still lent it a different perspective. Indeed, in black and white, as is so often the case, it was frightening.

The gamble, from the captain down, was acknowledged by its consequence: the virtual obligation to select in addition a 14-man reserve squad, otherwise known as the Academy, to be based in Perth. The primary selection was based on two factors: medical advice, which is therefore also in the dock, and the desperation to name a party containing as many previous Ashes winners, or their nearest replacements, as possible without involving wheelchairs or trusses.

Bland assurances were delivered about the eventual well-being of the entire party, but detail was conspicuously absent when the Ashes party was announced last week at a beautifully stage-managed event which lacked only dry ice at the entry of the captain, Andrew Flintoff, to imbue it with full showbiz trappings.

Kirk Russell, the Test team's respected physiotherapist, managed to quell some of the fears on Friday, however. "I am confident that all the players are where they should be in their rehabilitation or ahead of schedule," he said. "With all the conditioning work they've done, they're in good nick."

But Russell and the other medics recognise that to the untrained eye we have been this way before, and it pointed to a monumental cock-up. Déjà vu was never so luminous as when David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, named the players on Tuesday. Four years ago, it was impossible to know whether to laugh or cry as player after player broke down. Rotten luck played a part, but the same selectors started it all. Graveney at least conceded that this time there remained the question of meaningful match practice.

In their original squad in 2002 the panel picked Darren Gough, whose knee was still sore after surgery, and Flintoff, who was recovering from a double hernia operation. Gough broke down again before bowling a ball in anger, Flintoff arrived in Australia still unable to run. Both quickly went home. There ensued more comings and goings than in a bedroom farce. Given the Australian predilection for simple humour, this went down a storm. The outcome was obvious, and the Ashes went down the pan in 11 days.

"This is different," said Russell, who was new to the job in 2002. "Then it was a very tight time- frame with some players; this time we've been conservative if anything. Of course they might have done with more cricket, but the Champions Trophy before the Ashes allows them that."

None the less, the medics have staked their credentials on the entire sextet coming through. That is: Flintoff (scar tissue on ankle); Ashley Giles (severely worn hip); James Anderson (stress fracture of the back); Liam Plunkett (side strain); Stephen Harmison (lower-back strain); and Marcus Trescothick (severe mental stress).

The ludicrous, if unfortunate, nature of the last Australian tour coincided with the appointment of Dr Peter Gregory, still the ECB chief medical officer. Sometimes criticised out of frustration this year, he was appointed because he immersed himself in the why and wherefore of sports injuries, becoming a pioneer and leader in the field. He was so fascinated by the subject that he gave up a much more lucrative job as a partner in a GPs' surgery.

A decent club bowler from Banbury, he castled Ian Bell in the England nets last winter, and so dismayed was the batsman that the doc almost had to administer medical treatment on the spot, in the form of smelling salts. The point is that he knows what he is talking about. It is the doc's misfortune not only that so many injuries have cropped up together but also that they have steadfastly refused to respond to treatment. What is difficult to comprehend from the sidelines is that so many players have been injured for so long.

To a large extent, Gregory can act only as a conduit. He can help to diagnose injuries and their probable cause and effect, and then direct players to the appropriate specialist. Sometimes it is felt that players have not been referred soon enough. Yes and no. Many sports injuries, such as side strains and stress fractures, require rest and careful monitoring. With wear-and-tear injuries, such as to the knee, sports injury specialists advocate surgery as the last option, not the first. Surgery can rarely, if ever, guarantee a cure.

"Some injuries like side strains happen to bowlers for no rhyme nor reason," said Russell. "An injury like Jimmy Anderson's stress fracture can be caused because he just gets one delivery wrong, where the action hasn't repeated."

Of England's six good men and true, only two have had surgery for their current injuries: Flintoff and Ashley Giles. Anderson has had a long rest and will bowl in a match this week, Plunkett is erring on the cautious side and will bowl in the Champions Trophy, Harmison is all but ready to fire, intent on peaking in Australia, Trescothick is said to be in good heart and has started a Pilates programme as part of his overall rehab.

In Flintoff's case, it was hoped the scar tissue on his troublesome ankle, already under the knife before last year's Ashes, might recede through rest. It did not. An operation then it was. If the champion and captain returns as he did last time, there is much to anticipate.

With Giles, there has been much faffing about. The hip has haunted him for 18 months. Initial surgery did not work. It caused a condition called Gilmore's Groin. Now, perhaps it could be said that if Giles had missed last year's Ashes he would have been better long since - but then England would not now be the holders of the Ashes because he would not have been there.

It was worth the risk then. It is worth the risk now. The Ashes depend on it.

Overloaded? The burdens for Freddie to carry

ALL-ROUND EFFORT: During his coronation on Tuesday, Fred charmingly conceded that he was still learning. There would, he said, be no question of bowling 51 overs in an innings again, as he had against Sri Lanka at Lord's. But England need him to fire with both bat and ball. With batting, bowling and tactics to ponder, something has to give. Johnny Douglas was the last all-rounder to lead England Down Under, winning 4-1 in 1911-12 and losing 5-0 eight years later.

CELEBRITY: Fred denies, though somewhat archly, that he is a celeb. But his performance and his presence have, because of the age in which we live, made him much more than an ace professional sportsman. Everywhere he goes in Australia, media and fans will want a piece of him. Nobody could be more obliging, but when he is walk- ing through hotel lobbies facing photo and autograph requests galore, planning an Ashes campaign will become more arduous.

FAMILY: An old chestnut given a hesitant airing. But the captain being en famille for most of the trip may not be ideal. He and Rachael have two young children, who deserve attention. As captain, it could be argued he has another family to shepherd.

STATUS: Perhaps he is not one to dwell on such matters. But he was appointed only after several selection meetings. And the selectors still insist that Michael Vaughan is the official England captain.

FRIENDS: A captain has to be detached. But it is well known that Stephen Harmison is Fred's best friend. On tour they have tended to live in each other's pockets. This may not necessarily be conducive to dressing-room harmony.

LANCASHIRE OMEN: The last two Lancastrians to captain in Australia were Archie MacLaren 105 years ago and Michael Atherton in 1994-95. MacLaren lost 4-1, Atherton 3-1.

Stephen Brenkley

THE SQUADS

The Ashes

A Flintoff (Lancs) Age 28, Tests 62

A J Strauss (Middlesex) 29, 31

M E Trescothick (Somerset) 30, 76

A N Cook (Essex) 21, 9

K P Pietersen (Hampshire) 26, 18

P D Collingwood (Durham) 30, 15

I R Bell (Warwickshire) 24, 18

C M W Read (Notts, wkt) 28, 13

G O Jones (Kent, wkt) 30, 31

S I Mahmood (Lancashire) 24, 5

M J Hoggard (Yorkshire) 29, 58

S J Harmison (Durham) 27, 45

M S Panesar (Northants) 24, 10

A F Giles (Warwickshire), 33, 52

J M Anderson (Lancashire) 24, 13

L E Plunkett (Durham) 21, 6

Champions Trophy

A Flintoff (Lancs) Age 28, ODIs 102

J M Anderson (Lancashire)24, 50

I R Bell (Warwickshire)24, 23

R Clarke (Surrey)24, 20

P D Collingwood (Durham)30, 100

J W M Dalrymple (Middlesex)25, 11

S J Harmison (Durham)27, 44

E C Joyce (Middlesex)27, 3

S I Mahmood (Lancashire)24, 12

J Lewis (Gloucestershire)31, 7

K P Pietersen (Hampshire)26, 38

C M W Read (Notts, wkt)28, 33

A J Strauss (Middlesex29, 61

M H Yardy (Sussex)25, 2.

On Stand-by in Perth

R S Bopara (Essex) Age 21, Tests 0

S C Broad (Leicestershire)20, 0

R Clarke (Surrey)24, 2

J M W Dalrymple (Middlesex)25, 0

S M Davies (Worcs, wkt)20, 0

E C Joyce (Middlesex)27, 0

R W T Key (Kent)27, 15

J Lewis (Gloucestershire)31, 1

G Onions (Durham)24, 0

M J Prior (Sussex, wkt)24, 0

O A Shah (Middlesex)27, 1

T C Smith (Lancashire)20, 0

C T Tremlett (Hampshire)25, 0

M H Yardy (Sussex)25, 0.

THE ITINERARY

The Ashes

23-27 Nov: First Test (Brisbane)

1-5 Dec: Second Test (Adelaide)

14-18 Dec: Third Test (Perth)

26-30 Dec: Fourth Test (Melbourne)

2-6 Jan: Fifth Test (Sydney)

Twenty20

9 Jan: v Australia (Sydney)

One-Day Series

12 Jan: v Aus (Melbourne); 16 Jan: v NZ (Hobart); 19 Jan: v Aus (Brisbane); 23 Jan: v NZ (Adelaide); 26 Jan: v Aus (Adelaide); 30 Jan: v NZ (Perth); 2 Feb: v Aus (Sydney); 6 Feb: v NZ (Brisbane); 9 Feb: Final (Brisbane); 11 Feb: Final (Sydney); 12 Feb: Final (Adelaide).

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