England's preparations for tomorrow's first Test against India are in total disarray after Michael Vaughan and Simon Jones were forced to return home with knee injuries. Vaughan's withdrawal from the tour became inevitable when he failed a fitness test on his chronic right knee, but the departure of Jones, who collapsed in agony while running in to bowl, was the depressing finale to one of the most debilitating weeks a touring England side can have suffered.
The responsibility of raising the morale of a ravaged team, in the hope they will put on a fighting display over the coming week, has been placed on the broad shoulders of Andrew Flintoff, who was named as England captain yesterday afternoon. Flintoff looks set to lead a team containing three uncapped players. Alastair Cook, the 21-year-old Essex opener, is sure to make his Test debut and the loss of Jones could lead to Ian Blackwell and Monty Panesar being awarded their first England caps. If England come out of Wednesday's match with anything but a defeat it will be a remark0able achievement. India are an outstanding side at home and only three touring teams have won a series here in the last 18 years.
Vaughan and Jones have both undergone surgery in the past six months and will be reluctant to go under the knife again. Vaughan returned home early from England's pre-Christmas tour of Pakistan to have an operation on the same knee and Jones had a bony growth removed from his right ankle at the end of the summer.
Yet each seems destined for further surgery. Vaughan needs to sort his right knee out once and for all ifhe wishes to end speculation that the condition may bring a premature end to his career. And Jones will undoubtedly follow. The fast bowler was in tears as he made his way to the dressing-room. Sadly, cartilage does not heal itself and the tear he suffered needs to be repaired.
Dr Peter Gregory, the England and Wales Cricket Board's chief medical officer, did not sound particularly optimistic when he spoke of Vaughan's predicament. "I fear for Michael, in that he may have to have further surgery so shortly after he last had it," he said. "At the moment we do not know exactly what is wrong with his knee but I hope it is something that can be cured by a simple injection or physiotherapy, but those possibilities are not looking so good at the moment."
It was slightly ironic that Vaughan's chances of playing in the Test were looking promising when Jones collapsed in a heap. The England captain had shown little discomfort during a 30-minute net, but in Test match cricket you cannot play a substitute. You have to run between the wickets and field too, and it is the twisting and turning associated with this which proved too much.
Marcus Trescothick's hastily arranged flight home to sort out family issues brings the tally of players leaving India to three. It has also resulted in England fielding a very inexperienced batting line-up. Flintoff's promotion, and England's plight, has caused the all-rounder to abandon plans to return home to attend the birth of his second child. Flintoff was expected to miss the third Test to be at his wife's side but he will now return home for a couple of days at the end of the Test series.
There were a couple of encouraging signs though for England. Kevin Pietersen, Paul Collingwood, Shaun Udal and Liam Plunkett successfully came through fitness tests and are available for selection, and Flintoff had a huge smile on his face throughout his press conference.
Flintoff admitted that the circumstances of taking charge were far from ideal but he looked absolutely thrilled to be doing the job. "I have always wanted to captain England, but obviously I would have hoped it to be in different circumstances to these," he said.
"But the problems give opportunities to young players and we have the chance to show the character and strength that exists in this England side. Despite the problems we have had, the lads are looking forward to the challenge of playing against India and a lot of the things that have happened will be forgotten once we walk over the white line."
Flintoff's experience as a captain is limited. He captained England Under-19s as a youth and has been in charge of Lancashire on a handful of occasions. He will make mistakes over the coming Test matches but he can gain comfort from the fact that every player will be trying their utmost to make his tenure successful. It is the least they can do for a player who gives the team his all every time he pulls on an England shirt.
There is a fear that the workload created by the captaincy may prove to be too much for England's most influential player. "Yes, I bat, bowl and field at slip but it is not something I am worried about. Who knows, the extra responsibility may bring out the best in me. I will be a very proud man when I walk out in front of 10 players on Wednesday morning." The 10 who join Flintoff will be finalised today but Cook will take his place in a top five boasting fewer Test caps than their new captain.
The loss of Jones should lead to a change in strategy. England would have been hoping to put India's glittering batting line-up under pressure with their four fast bowlers, but it is a tactic only worth employing if all the bowlers are up to it. Plunkett is still raw and James Anderson has just arrived in the country, and this will encourage England to play two spinners. Shaun Udal is England's most experienced slow bowler but the least likely to play. Blackwell's batting offers depth to a fragile batting line-up and Panesar's flight should give Flintoff a few more attacking options.
India have no such problems. They will select from a full squad and England's plight may encourage them to play a fifth bowler at Mohammad Kaif's expense.
India (probable): R Dravid (c), V Sehwag, W Jaffer, S Tendulkar, V V S Laxman, M Kaif, M Dhoni, I Pathan, A Kumble, H Singh, S Sreesanth.
Who's out and who's in
* OUT Michael Vaughan (capt) Knee injury; Flying back to England
* OUT Marcus Trescothick (vc) Personal problems; Back in England
* OUT Ashley Giles Recovering from hip operation; Still in England
* OUT Simon Jones Knee injury; Flying back to England
* IN Kevin Pietersen; Recovered from back injury
* IN Paul Collingwood; Recovered from back injury
* IN Liam Plunkett; Recovered from heel injury
* IN Shaun Udal
Recovered from gastric flu
ENGLAND TEAM (probable): A Cook (Essex), A J Strauss (Middlesex; vc), I R Bell (Warwicks), K Pietersen (Hampshire), P D Collingwood (Durham), A Flintoff (Lancashire, capt), G O Jones (Kent, wkt), I Blackwell (Somerset), M J Hoggard (Yorkshire) S J Harmison (Durham), M Panesar (Northants).