England's intended path to Ashes glory will be strewn with medical bulletins. The team director, Andy Flower, conceded yesterday that both Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff are in a race against time for the next match against Australia in Birmingham starting a week tomorrow. It is a race Pietersen is likely to lose and Flintoff is utterly intent on winning.
Both men, the side's most celebrated players, will see specialists this week for examination of their chronic injuries, which will determine their futures in the series. Rumours of their demise have been, in both cases, exaggerated, but they are clearly struggling. At various points during the second Test at Lord's it was difficult to discern whose limp was the more pronounced.
But the waiting will lead to speculation, concern and attempts to second-guess doctors who can expect to be besieged with requests for prognoses. In cricketing terms, Flintoff's knee and Pietersen's heel are serious impediments to performance. It is probably only because of the commanding presence of both and the fact that it is the Ashes that such strenuous efforts are being made.
Flintoff, the last-day hero of the win at Lord's on Monday which put England 1-0 up with three matches to play, is feeling severe twinges from the right knee on which he had surgery only two months ago. Pietersen is suffering severe pain from an Achilles tendon and remains the more doubtful.
England will do their utmost to get both men on to the field for the match at Edgbaston but they also have to think of the two matches after that. They made it clear yesterday that they will not take a chance on either player if they are not fully fit for a five-day Test match. Flower said: "If guys are fit enough to get through and contribute to winning Test matches then they will be selected. If they're not, it's not a tough decision to make. They're just simply not fit enough to do it, so you don't select them."
Given the nature of the competition neither man will lightly give up his position. In Flintoff's case it is probably slightly easier for him to make the decision to continue, come what may, because he has already declared his intention to retire from Test cricket at the end of the series. After that his body can withdraw peacefully to the less demanding arena of short-form cricket.
On Monday morning at Lord's he merely embellished his legendary status with a resplendent exhibition of fast bowling. The adulation he received and his desire to put it over the Aussies one more time will provide stimuli that injections cannot.
The same goes for Pietersen, who thrives on batting. But it was obvious that there were stages in the match where he was having trouble running. While he insists that his batting is not affected he played a most bizarre innings last Saturday afternoon by his lofty standards. Perhaps the injury, which he felt first felt on England's tour of the West Indies in January, is beginning to prey on his mind, which in turn is affecting his approach to batting.
The injections record of both men will have some influence. Pietersen is allowed one more cortisone jab under medical guidelines during this series and Flintoff will simply do what it takes. Flower said the long-term effects of possibly giving too many injections would be looked at.
"When you're given the responsibility to make decisions you have to consider factors like that," he said. Although Flower obviously wants both men to play in Birmingham, where the establishment of a 2-0 lead would make England extremely difficult to catch in the series given the impetus they would have created, he quite rightly refused to make a prediction.
"They're both seeing specialists so I'd rather not make a prediction and let the medical guys make their decisions," Flower said. "Usually, it's a combination of both medical opinion and the player himself. The man involved knows his body best and can feel certain things but you have got to take medical advice. That's why we employ the best men around, to give us that advice.
"Kev is seeing a specialist later this week and they will assess his Achilles problem and we take it from there. Fred obviously had a tough physical game but, chatting to him after the match, he was very bullish about being ready for the third Test. But obviously with his injury record we have got to be a little bit careful about the wear and tear on his body. He can have a proper rest over the next week and he will also be reassessed."
Ian Bell will come in if Pietersen withdraws and Steve Harmison would probably replace Flintoff. The batting cupboard is much barer than the bowling stores, but Flower will spend the next three days hoping he has no need of using any emergency stocks.
Highest score: 158
Aussies' respect? Definitely, always a threat – Ponting knows Pietersen is their most prized wicket.
Highest score: 87
Aussies' respect? Hardly, they've labelled him "The Shermanator" after a geeky film character.