England thrown by missing Flintoff

England 351-7 dec President’s XI 49-4
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The Independent Online

England have three days to work on a familiar conundrum: what their Test side should be in the absence of Andrew Flintoff. In the past 10 years the selectors have gained abundant experience of planning for life without Fred but that makes it no easier for them, him or anybody else.

It is like the prodigal son returning home. No sooner have you become used to having him around than he is off again – until the next time. The side always looks so much better balanced with Flintoff at No 6, the perfect fulcrum, whatever the results say.

But he is out of the fourth Test which starts at the Kensington Oval on Thursday and probably out of the fifth as well. His second scan of the tour - his first was to monitor a side strain – revealed a muscle tear around the right hip. He has not yet withdrawn from the Indian Premier League but it is unlikely, even for the best part of £500,000, that he will dare risk playing, if only because his big, brave body has so few parts left to be injured.

There is a multitude of permutations. Five batsmen or five bowlers? Who should bat six? Who can bat seven? How can we take 20 wickets? Will Matthew Prior’s wife give birth before the match? Are all the seamers fit? Are all the spinners fit? Is anybody fit?

None of these questions, or, in all probability, any others were properly answered at Windward Cricket Club in the south-east of Barbados yesterday when England began a two-day match against a BCA President’s XI, the president in question being the great former fast bowler Joel Garner. The oldest player in the president’s side was 24 and they included a fast bowler whose full name is Barrington Bjorn Beckenbauer Yearwood. So, no pressure to play sport there, then.

It was one of those enduringly pleasing cricket occasions. The ground and its setting were bucolic. The ebullient, friendly crowd lined the boundaries under temporary awnings; they queued good-naturedly but interminably for burgers being served by the slowest short-order chef in the world; the sun was in its heaven. In terms of picking a Test side it was meaningless.

England batted first by agreement, though toss formalities were observed. The tourists’ XI contained both the new additions to the squad, called up as cover for Flintoff, Ravi Bopara and Amjad Khan. They had flown here from the England Lions’ Tour of New Zealand, where they had arrived only on Thursday, via Christchurch, Auckland, Los Angeles and Miami, through six time zones and the international timeline, the journey taking 24 hours.

It is a stretch to see either making it on Thursday but Bopara batted rumbustiously. Dropped on 28, he made 124 not out from 125 balls with two sixes and 17 fours before England declared on 351 for 7. Runs are runs but the opposition were largely unchallenging. If he can do this with jet lag, the selectors may be tempted to muse, what can he do without? His fellow traveller Khan then took two new ball wickets as the President’s XI closed on 49 for four.

The route down which the selectors have traditionally gone when Flintoff has been hors de combat has involved six batsmen and four specialist bowlers. It has worked surprisingly often too, but they may not dare do so this time. England bowled 128 overs in West Indies’ second innings in Antigua last week in falling a wicket short of dramatic victory.

Of the other batsmen yesterday, Ian Bell performed his regular routine of telling the same old story by making an effortlessly pleasant 43 and was then out, in form Andrew Strauss made 56. Tim Ambrose also hung around to make 74. He may be pressed into service because Prior’s wife, Emily, is entering the final stages of her pregnancy. Prior, who made nought and has already been given permission to miss the fifth Test in Trinidad, may return home before then. Prior is perhaps able enough to bat at six, whereas Ambrose is probably not.

That complicates the selection riddle further, but then Ryan Sidebottom is short of full fitness because of a Achilles problem, and Graeme Swann has a sore right elbow which may not hold up for five days. Those issues apart, it is a straightforward business.