Flintoff fiasco puts Ashes on critical list

The news is as bad as can be. Andrew Flintoff goes under the surgeon's knife early this week to remove three fragments of bone floating in his left ankle. After Flintoff saw a specialist yesterday morning, a statement from the England and Wales Cricket Board's medical staff said: "His rehabilitation and return to full fitness is anticipated to be in the region of 12 weeks."

That ends only four weeks before the First Test in Brisbane. Flintoff is unlikely to be ready and fully fit for the heat of the defence of the Ashes.

For Flintoff to suffer from such a medical misfortune so soon after Michael Vaughan's wrecked knee recalls Oscar Wilde: "To lose one may be regarded as misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness."

The injured list also includes Simon Jones and Ashley Giles, both of whom are recovering slowly from operations, and James Anderson, with his stressed spine. "Losing your captain, key all-rounder and senior spinner all in the same summer is hard to bear, but we just have to get on," David Grave-ney, the chairman of selectors, said. England's medical diagnosticians seem to operate on the optimistic theory that surgery is the last resort, when maybe it should have been the first.

The quick fix which pushes players back into action before they are completely well seems generally to be preferred to the frustrating business of a surgical cure and a lengthy recovery, once and for all.

Questions are already being asked of the quality of the diagnoses of the medical team headed by Peter Gregory. The volume of criticism is likely to rise to new decibel levels.

Flintoff's absence means that the scenario for England's summer is being hastily rewritten. Team selection, strategy, and tactics had all been based on the assumption that England's leading man, and captain too, would be back for the Manchester Test. They assumed wrongly.

At Canterbury last week Flintoff was unable to finish a four-day county match. Those three fragments of bone floating in his left ankle were still causing him discomfort, and if he could not complete a four-day game, the selectors were clearly not going to choose him for the five-day Test beginning at Old Trafford on Thursday, even before the news of yesterday's medical consultation was revealed in mid-afternoon. "It's a complete shock," one insider remarked before hearing yesterday's diagnosis, which was even more shocking.

The Pakistan Test series was intended as a launchpad for the Ashes. Four games against stern opposition - Pakistan are ranked second in Test cricket, one place ahead of England - were intended to sharpen form and cement high morale in the lead- up to the Brisbane Test, which begins in only four months' time. The absence of Vaughan and Flintoff changes this prospectus utterly.

England's best ambition now will be degraded, and the team may concentrate on trying to salvage the series against Pakistan, even if that means playing the unadventurous, defensive cricket that resulted in a drawn First Test at Lord's.

It is a grim inheritance for Andrew Strauss, England's third choice for the captaincy, and his inexperience inevitably tightens the grip of Duncan Fletcher on strategy and tactics. When Vaughan was captain, there was a dialogue between captain and coach, with the decision sometimes going the captain's way. Flintoff is capable of holding up his end in an argument too.

Strauss is less experienced and sure of himself. Apparently, Fletcher and not Strauss took the decision to bat on in England's second innings at Lord's until there were enough runs on the board to deny Pakistan a chance of victory, but insufficient overs left to bowl them out.

Selection is the first facet to be affected by the news of Flintoff. Had he returned, Ian Bell would have dropped out. No surprise there. But with Flintoff batting and bowling, the selectors had more options to play with. They could have contemplated a refined attack, with Flintoff joining Matthew Hoggard and Steven Harmison to provide the pace, and James Dalrymple joining Monty Panesar to exploit a dry Old Trafford wicket.

Dalrymple, who will be included in the squad for Old Trafford, does not have the bowling average to support his inclusion, having taken only 20 first-class wickets at 37.55 so far this season. But he has a batting average of just over 40, and that recommends him to Fletcher, who likes bowlers who can bat. Since poor Panesar is still learning how to bat, that prejudices the coach against him. A question mark remains against him.

Absences make the selectors' quest for a balanced team even more complicated. With a four-man attack which includes one spinner, who fills the third spot for the seamers? Liam Plunkett was below par at Lord's and scored too few runs at No 8. Perhaps Sajid Mahmood, who is faster but wilder, will create better balance. Or maybe Jon Lewis, who is slower but more accurate. The selectors' indecision will probably be reflected in a 13-man squad for Old Trafford.

The Flintoff story was not quite the bombshell it appeared to be on Friday afternoon when it was announced that he was experiencing "some discomfort" in his ankle, and would see a specialist in Manchester yesterday morning.

Early reports from Canterbury, where Lancashire were playing Kent, suggested that the rest and the fitness regime that followed the Sri Lanka series had worked. Flintoff had come through a Twenty20 game without suffering, and a fiery spell on the first day of the Kent game suggested that recovery continued.

It stopped last Thursday when Flintoff admitted to Dave Roberts, Lancashire's physio, that all was not well. What was uncertain was whether Flintoff was stiff because of his lay-off, or whether this was a real warning that the ankle was still incapable of supporting the workload.

The news was communicated to the selectors, who immediately began to consider Plan B. Flintoff's inability to bowl on Friday confirmed their worst fears. Exactly a year after England beat Australia at Edgbaston to level the Ashes series, the victorious XI had been taken apart, and no one knows when, or even if, they can be put together again.

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