As England turned yesterday to the main business of the summer, they were suddenly assailed by uncertainty. The 4-0 defeat of Australia in the NatWest Series should be enough to put a spring in anybody's step but Graeme Swann's damaged elbow was dragging them back to earth.
The selectors are optimistic but far from sure that Swann will be fit in time for the start of the Test series against South Africa next Thursday. He missed the last two one-day matches against Australia with a recurrence of the injury on which he needed surgery two years ago and his absence would seriously harm their chances of remaining No 1 in the Test rankings.
Earlier this week he had a cortisone injection in the joint and Andy Flower, England's coach, said he hoped the combination of treatment and rest would give him time to be fit. Tim Bresnan also has a sore elbow, another recurrence of an old injury, but given the contrasting depths of England's fast bowling and spin bowling resources, Swann would be the greater loss.
Flower said yesterday: "Swann and Bresnan have ongoing elbow problems. Our medical staff believe they will be fit and available for selection for the first Test but it's a strenuous exercise being a bowler playing international cricket.
"They play all three forms of the game so that's why Swann missed a big part of the one-day series and why we rested Bresnan for the last match at Old Trafford."
Flower agreed that Swann has been an integral feature of England's rise to No 1. "Absolutely," he said, "but there will be opportunities for youngsters when we rest Swann, and Swann can't go on forever. There'll be some opportunities for others in the international game."
The selectors meet tomorrow to confirm their squad but Flower indicated that they already know the men they want to fill the contentious positions at No 6 in the batting order and the role of third seamer.
The men in possession are Jonny Bairstow, who is under pressure from Ravi Bopara, and Bresnan, who is facing a stiff challenge from Steve Finn, the Middlesex paceman who played in England's most recent Test as a replacement for Stuart Broad.
"They are the obvious areas for discussion but we have very clear ideas of what we want to do," said Flower. "I don't think it would be accurate to say that there's anything to play for in this round of county championship matches."
Bopara, who is not playing a championship match, has probably nosed ahead of Bairstow, who is. His form in the one-day game has also revealed a new composure which heartened Flower.
"I played with Ravi at Essex and have obviously spent a lot of time in that coach-player relationship," he said. "We want him to do well, like him as a friend and rate him as a cricketer so it's been very rewarding in a number of ways."
Swann's loss would not be by choice, of course, and his replacement would not be straightforward. A view might have been taken about Monty Panesar by now because of the limitations of his batting and, especially, fielding, with Samit Patel and James Tredwell as the other contenders. Tredwell has hardly been spectacular, with 10 wickets at almost 40 runs each for Kent in this wet season so far, but in his intermittent appearances for England he has not been perturbed by the demands of the job.
England were rightly jubilant about their victory over Australia and they have now won 10 successive one-day internationals, a record. But they now return to the red ball against South Africa, for whom a repeat of their series victory in 2008 would see them replace England on top of the charts.Reuse content