England's hopes of getting their summer off to a winning start received a double blow yesterday when Andrew Caddick was ruled out of the coming two-Test series against Zimbabwe with a foot injury and Andrew Flintoff's chances of being fit for the first Test at Lord's were rated as "slim".
For Caddick this setback, sustained during Somerset's recent match against Derbyshire, is a major blow because there are many who feel that now is the time for England's selectors to look to the future. The ligament damage to the arch of his right foot may have saved a tricky decision. It will keep him out of action for six weeks and give younger bowlers the chance of staking a claim for his place.
During this lay-off Caddick will wear a protective surgical boot but the England and Wales Cricket Board Chief Medical Officer Peter Gregory expects him to be fit for the five-Test series against South Africa later this summer.
The potential loss of Flintoff with a compressed nerve in his right shoulder, will cause equal concern because of the effect his withdrawal has on the balance of the side. With no natural replacement for the Lancashire all-rounder England are set to give him as much time as possible to recover and will name him in today's squad.
All this leaves a desperate search for fast bowling replacements. After an impressive winter in one-day blues James Anderson is certain to be named, as are Stephen Harmison and Mathew Hoggard, even if the Yorkshireman has yet to fully recover from an abdominal strain. With Darren Gough, Alex Tudor, Chris Silverwood and Richard Johnson all unfit David Graveney and his crew have had to spread the net further than they originally anticipated.
Such ailments bring a younger and inexperienced brigade into the fray. Sussex's James Kirtley has played one-day cricket for England and with 19 wickets to his name is in fine form. The swinging conditions at Lord's in May could well suit his style of bowling as they would Martin Saggers of Kent and Kabir Ali from Worcestershire. Both are among the wickets with Ali taking eight during the tied match against Zimbabwe earlier in the week.
Of the batsmen who played in England's last Test, a victory over Australia in Sydney, it is John Crawley's place that will have caused most debate. A controversial selection a year ago, the Hampshire captain has averaged 47 in the eight Tests since his return. Such statistics would usually guarantee a place but the 31-year-old could be sacrificed for a younger man.
Those in contention for Crawley's spot are Robert Key, who batted well on several occasions in Australia without cementing a place, and the uncapped quartet of Will Jefferson, Jim Troughton, Mark Wagh and Bilal Shafayet. Each has started the season in encouraging fashion but Zimbabwe could be the ideal team to introduce Ian Bell. The Warwickshire opener has struggled for form since his name was mentioned as a potential England player a year ago, but he remains an outstanding prospect and scored a hundred last week.
The one other contentious issue is that of Alec Stewart. Like Caddick there are many who feel the curtain should be drawn on his international career, but it appears England wish to continue using the services of the 40-year-old. Both have been fantastic servants but the selectors should be brave and let go of the past. Even with the pair England have failed to compete against the best and they cannot be considered part of the team's future.
He may no longer be part of the selection committee but Nasser Hussain, the England captain, refuses to accept that Test caps should be just given away. This is true, but through continuing to play Stewart the careers of two exciting young wicketkeepers, Chris Read at Nottinghamshire and James Foster of Essex, are stagnating. Hussain's responsibility goes further than finishing with a good win ratio. It is also his duty to hand over to his successor an England side that is in better shape than when he started.
Possible England squad (v Zimbabwe, First Test, Lord's, Thursday): N Hussain (capt), M P Vaughan, M E Trescothick, M A Butcher, R W T Key, I R Bell, A J Stewart (wkt), A Flintoff, A F Giles, S J Harmison, J M Anderson, M J Hoggard, M J Saggers.