England fret over Flintoff and Pietersen

There are issues of much greater concern to England than being 4-0 down in a one-day series against Australia. Were it to become 5-0, as seems probable in Nottingham tonight, or even 7-0 by the time the interminable round of matches is apparently complete in Durham on Sunday, it would matter hardly a jot compared to the continuing uncertainties about the side's two most influential players.

The absence through injury of Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff is one of the main reasons that England find themselves in such a conspicuous mess in the NatWest Series. With each passing match both have become more important than they were already, their replacements hopelessly exposed and, it is increasingly feared, not up to it.

But their return, while desperately needed, is clouded in doubt and, in Flintoff's case, suspicion. Pietersen has suffered a setback in his recovery from an operation on his Achilles and is by no means certain to be ready for England's tour of South Africa, which begins in November.

Flintoff appears to be on course for a return to cricket some time next spring, following surgery on his knee, and has gone to live in Dubai for two months to try to hasten his rehabilitation. But his international future has been complicated by the offer of a second-tier increment contract by the England and Wales Cricket Board.

Having retired from Test cricket, Flintoff was not eligible for a lucrative central contract. The increment contracts, although worth considerably less, still give England a large element of control over those who sign them. Flintoff has been handed one because, given his frequent injuries, England are anxious to ensure they can largely dictate where and when he plays.

Although the Flintoff camp has said nothing, it has been suggested that he will decline the contract – the money being a mere bagatelle. Should Flintoff then wish to fly off and play in some of the Twenty20 leagues likely to spring up all over the cricketing world, including the six weeks of the Indian Premier League, he could do so, whatever England's view.

England would probably still have to pick him, as their 4-0 deficit to Australia so emphatically demonstrates. But not signing would make Flintoff appear greedy, antagonise his team-mates, ensure the loss of public goodwill and run counter to his expressed desire to be the best one-day player in the world. But all reports about any reluctance to sign on his part are, at best, premature and mischievous.

Pietersen had been expected to be fit again six weeks after his Achilles operation in July. At the time, England's chief medical officer said the surgery appeared to have been routine. But the scar tissue around the tendon soon became infected and has not cleared up. Pietersen said yesterday that he still has an open wound in his leg. "I saw a couple of surgeons during the week but it's slow at the moment," he said. If England do not have him in South Africa the Test side will find it extremely tough, the one-day side impossible.

Luke Wright, one of the players vainly trying to combat Australia without Pietersen and Flintoff, is doubtful for today's fifth match in the series after being hit on the toe while batting in the nets yesterday. Dimitri Mascarenhas has been called up as cover.

Fifth One-day International, Trent Bridge:

Probable teams: England: A J Strauss (capt), J L Denly, R S Bopara, M J Prior (wkt), O A Shah, E J G Morgan, S C J Broad, A U Rashid, T T Bresnan, R J Sidebottom, G Onions

Australia: S R Watson, T D Paine (wkt), R T Ponting (capt), M J Clarke, C J Ferguson, C L White, M E K Hussey, N M Hauritz, M G Johnson, B Lee, N W Bracken.

Umpires: A Rauf (Pak) & R Kettleborough (Eng).

Start: 2.30pm, Sky Sports 1, HD1.

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