England selectors ready to take risk on Flintoff's fitness

England's selectors will gamble on the fitness of Andrew Flintoff in this week's first Test, but it is difficult to see the Lancashire all-rounder playing a full role in either this game or the remaining three Test matches against the West Indies.

England's selectors will gamble on the fitness of Andrew Flintoff in this week's first Test, but it is difficult to see the Lancashire all-rounder playing a full role in either this game or the remaining three Test matches against the West Indies.

England's most inspirational cricketer has been unable to bowl properly since he complained of a sore left ankle at the end of the Test series against New Zealand and initially it was hoped that the boney spur which had grown at the back of his foot would respond to a month of intensive physiotherapy and rest.

But this seems not to be the case. Flintoff bowled 2.5 overs for Lancashire in last Wednesday's Twenty20 match against Yorkshire but was unable to turn his arm over the next evening against Nottinghamshire. It is hard to see him bowling 15, never mind 25, overs for England at Lord's on Thursday.

"We are closely monitoring Flintoff's fitness in the run-up to Thursday," said David Graveney, the chairman of selectors. "We feel that the more time he has to recover and receive treatment, the greater his chances of taking part as an all-rounder."

Yet the nature of Flintoff's injury, and its refusal to respond to treatment, suggests that he may need surgery. Boney growths do not just disappear and as long as it continues to inflame the soft tissue which surrounds it he will suffer discomfort.

England's selectors are thus in a quandary. They will be reluctant to lose their talisman for the coming Test series, and possibly the ICC Champions Trophy in September, if he is still capable of batting and fielding. But they must weigh this against the long-term damage he may cause if he continues to play.

Medics suggest that this will not happen, but Flintoff has been in this position once before. In 2002 the 26-year-old continued to play in the Test series against India even though he was struggling with a hernia. He waited until the end of the season before he underwent surgery but this did not give him enough time to regain fitness before England travelled to Australia to compete for the Ashes. This approach, as well as that shown to Darren Gough, undermined the tour.

England's busiest summer of international cricket finishes at the end of September and surgery then would give Flintoff 10 weeks to recover before Michael Vaughan's side fly off to South Africa. The loss of Flintoff's bowling would be a major blow to Vaughan. Stephen Harmison has received all the plaudits following England's recent series victories over the West Indies and New Zealand but the role of Flintoff should not be underestimated. His ability to take wickets is important but it is the balance he gives the side - England can play five bowlers with Flintoff in the side - and the control he brings to the attack which will be missed most.

Flintoff bowls the tough overs in the middle of an innings and allows Vaughan to rest Harmison, knowing that the game will not slip away from England while he is out of the attack.

The remainder of England's 13-man squad was predictable. Robert Key has been included as cover, but the selectors expect Mark Butcher to prove he has recovered from a thigh strain. Butcher will be keen to play to take his run of successive appearances for England to 43 (Ian Botham and Allan Knott top the domestic list with 65), but Butcher has a long way to overtake Allan Border, the former Australian captain managed 153 consecutive Test matches.

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