It was probably only a matter of time before Andrew Flintoff's knee gave out. Most of his other bodily parts have protested in the past 10 years about the workload imposed on them and the torn right meniscus, suffered in South Africa this week, merely extends the list. But this is still as inopportune as it gets.
The announcement yesterday that Flintoff has another imminent essential assignation with a specialist surgeon next week throws into disarray England's strategy for the summer, especially the vexatious little problem of how they might reclaim the Ashes. It will also encourage "Terry Told-You-So" to tell us why it was always a dodgy business for Flintoff to play in the Indian Premier League in which he sustained the injury.
Flintoff should be fit by the time the series against Australia starts on 8 July and indeed is expected to have recovered in time for the World Twenty20, which begins on 5 June. He will definitely miss the two Test matches and three one-day internationals against West Indies, which exacerbates the deep worries about the composition of the England team. They were already in confusion and now have to make another attempt to solve the old conundrum: four bowlers or five, five batsmen or six. And who might they be? England's selectors are not travelling through the Bay of Plenty.
They have become accustomed to doing without their star all-rounder and have coped perversely well in his absence. Since he reached his zenith in the 2005 Ashes, England have played 45 Test matches. Of the 22 Flintoff has played they have won three and lost 13, of the 23 he has missed they have won 10 and lost three.
The logical conclusion of this is that England might as well pitch up without Flintoff, possibly on the grounds that the others know they have to perform better when he is not there. No selection panel in their right minds would do so, because Flintoff remains a mighty cricketer, daunting and inspiring on the field and in the dressing room, qualities that tend to be disguised by a batting average in the same period of 28.06 with no centuries and a bowling average of 33.31 with no five-wicket hauls.
The knee joins a litany of previous injures including back, ankle, groin, shoulder, rib and most recently hip. Although there are plenty of critics who complain that neither he nor any other England cricketer ought to have been allowed anywhere near the IPL in such an important summer, it is also true that he could have damaged his knee playing for Lancashire at Hove this week in which case it would have been put down to bad luck.
It is becoming clear with Flintoff, however, that if it is not one thing it is another. He will undergo keyhole surgery on his knee early next week and should recover fully in three to five weeks. Where Flintoff is concerned that will probably be three because he is used to regaining fitness after injury and is fed up with missing games.
The IPL acted quickly and decisively. After Flintoff felt discomfort while playing for Chennai Super Kings, for whom he conceded an IPL record 50 runs in four overs on Thursday night, the team's medics contacted the England and Wales Cricket Board's chief medical officer Nick Peirce. Flintoff was sent for a scan in Durban where a slight medial meniscal tear was revealed. "Clearly this is a huge disappointment for both the player and the IPL team," said Peirce. "This sort of degenerative injury though is one that could have happened at any time anywhere." The point is, though, that it happened to Flintoff in the IPL.
Quite where England go from here they have until Wednesday to decide. They have to agree on a policy without Flintoff but ensure that it complements the strategy with him. Having done that, they must also decide how best to deal with his return.
Hugh Morris, England Cricket managing director, said: "Andrew has been extremely unlucky with injuries but if there is one saving grace it is that the injury has occurred now rather than on the eve of either the ICC World Twenty20 or the Ashes."
The World Twenty20 in England, to mark the centenary of the International Cricket Council, might have an importance of its own, but Flintoff could be left crucially short of long-form cricket by the time the Ashes begin if he plays in it. Nor can England countenance risking more strain on his body. It may mean deciding if the World Twenty20 is less or more important than the Ashes and the answer may not be to purists' liking. Flintoff will wish to play in both, but then he believes that his body is still strong and robust.
England may think that in England at this time of year they can beat West Indies with four bowlers. Maybe, maybe not. The last time they won a Test match of any kind, against South Africa last August, they had five bowlers, including Flintoff, and although they have beaten weak opposition in New Zealand with four bowlers, West Indies are somewhat stronger. To face Australia with only four bowlers, none of whom is in the special category, would be professional suicide.
Options are hardly thick on the ground. Ryan Sidebottom and Amjad Khan, both on the West Indies tour, are still recovering from injury and would have had nowhere near enough county cricket to justify being picked in a Test match. Of those playing for England Lions next week, Liam Plunkett and Sajid Mahmood are both short of early-season wickets.
It must be heartening that James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann have all been garnering wickets. So has Luke Wright of Sussex, who is also playing for the Lions next week but giving him a Test debut would truly be throwing him to the lions. If they cannot come up with another bowler the last batting place may go to Ravi Bopara, Ian Bell, or Michael Vaughan, two of whom were likely to miss out.
Doctor's notes for a dodgy knee
*WHAT'S A MENISCUS?
The menisci (there are two) are cartilaginous tissues that hold the knee together when it undergoes tension and torsion. They disperse the weight of the body and reduce friction during movement.
*CAUSES OF TEAR
Innocuous activities such as walking or squatting can cause this injury. A meniscus can also be torn by the traumatic forces encountered in sport. Like in Flintoff's case, they can also be damaged by prolonged wear and tear; this is called a degenerative tear.
Tears can lead to pain and/or swelling of the knee. Another typical complaint is joint locking, when the sufferer is unable to straighten the leg.
Keyhole surgery to repair the tear involves two small tubes being inserted into the knee. One is a camera and the other the tool to stitch together the tissue. The operation usually lasts half an hour and the patient can expect to be fit within three to five weeks, although footballers have been playing again after a fortnight.
Freddie or not: For the record
*Andrew Flintoff has missed 23 of England's 45 Test matches since the reclaiming of the Ashes in September 2005. Of the 22 Tests in which the all-rounder has featured, England have won just three – against India, in Mumbai, in March 2006, against Sri Lanka at Edgbaston two months later and against South Africa at The Oval last August. Only the Sri Lankan match was not a dead rubber.
England since 2005: 45 played 13 won
With Flintoff: 22 played 3 won
Without Flintoff: 23 played 10 won
Fred-less: How the side will look
*Possible England team for first Test against West Indies on 6 May at Lord's:
A J Strauss (capt), A N Cook, R S Bopara, K P Pietersen, P D Collingwood, M J Prior, S C J Broad, G P Swann, S J Harmison, J M Anderson, S I Mahmood.
Life without the Ashes: How to fill the void
Now that the England's chances of winning the Ashes have taken a knock, here are some suggestions for filling your summer:
*If you wanna be startin' somethin' you could Beat It over to the O2 Arena, where Michael Jackson is playing 30 dates between July and September. It could well be a case of Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough for the Aussie bowlers, so you might get more of a Thriller watching Jacko.
*Prepare yourself for the second Test at Lord's by taking the kids to see "Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince", released on 15 July. This continuation of the epic struggle between Harry and Lord Voldemort is sure to take your mind off what is sure to be an innings defeat.Reuse content