England's old hands face Test of sinew
Saturday 23 February 2008
England's physiotherapist, Kirk Russell, has had a comfortable three weeks overseeing and occasionally treating a youthful, fit and essentially injury-free one-day team in New Zealand. But all that is about to change. England's crocks are in town and he will begin earning his keep. At the conclusion of the final limited-over game here this morning, Russell's attention will turn to the Test squad, a 16-man group containing several older, stiffer and more injury-prone bodies.
Michael Vaughan, Matthew Hoggard, Stephen Harmison, Andrew Strauss and Monty Panesar, with an average age of 30, met up with their one-day colleagues on Thursday. Each is fit, healthy and raring to get into the three-Test series against New Zealand, but older bodies tend to be less malleable than those of their youthful team-mates.
Each of the players named above needs a strong series after England's disappointing display in Sri Lanka before Christmas, and their preparations start on Monday with a two-day warm-up game against an Invitation XI in Dunedin.
A bowler in need of wickets and an injury-free trip is Hoggard, whose form and fitness of late have been patchy. For three years the 31-year-old was the mainstay of England's attack, picking up 156 Test wickets in 40 consecutive matches. Hoggard's run came to an end in the final Ashes Test of 2006-07 and in the 12 Tests he has played since then he has taken 35 wickets at an average of 37. Injury has prevented him from playing in seven of the last 11 Tests too.
Hoggard accepts that he is under pressure but he does not believe it is a bad thing. "I have felt that I have needed to perform all my career," Hoggard said. "I have got to perform to stay in the side and, with the added bonus of people coming through in the one-day side, I have added pressure on me. It is a good thing about the current England set-up. We have strength in depth. Everybody needs to keep on top of their game to stay in the side."
The return of a fit Andrew Flintoff would increase the pressure on Hoggard and England's other fast bowlers. Flintoff is in India playing as a batsman for the England Lions, but he is hoping to be fully fit by the start of the season. "The plan is for me to play in the remaining match and then return home, where I hope to begin walking through my action as the first step towards getting back to bowling again," Flintoff said. "If everything goes to plan I will do a little bit of bowling in Dubai and, hopefully, I can get fully fit for the start of the season.
"I don't know how realistic that is and we probably won't know until I start bowling again. I don't feel any discomfort in my ankle while I'm batting or fielding, but it has felt fine in the past and then I've broken down again. The true test won't come until I have to bowl flat out again. The temptation is to be impatient and rush it, but all the medical people have told me to take it slowly and I'm determined to do that this time. I want to come back as good as new."
* New Zealand's Daniel Vettori, Jacob Oram and Brendon McCullum could join the tour of England in the summer after the rest of the squad because of their involvement in the Indian Premier League.
Listen to Angus Fraser and Stephen Brenkley discuss England's final one-day international at independent.co.uk/sport
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