Injured Flintoff must make Ashes priority

England's preparations for the second Test against Pakistan next week were thrown into disarray yesterday when Andrew Flintoff failed to come through Lancashire's County Championship game against Kent successfully. The match was viewed as a final fitness test for the all-rounder, who has not played for England since injuring his left ankle during the third Test against Sri Lanka in June, but he did not take any part in the game after lunch on the fourth day.

Flintoff will see a specialist today, when his ankle will be reassessed and the future management of the injury will be discussed. He is yet to be ruled out of the Old Trafford Test which starts next Thursday but, following this latest setback, it would be reckless for England to gamble on his fitness on the first morning of the Test. The absence of Flintoff means that Andrew Strauss will lead the side for a second time in Test cricket.

The outlook for Flintoff appeared good after the first day's play at Canterbury, where he bowled 10 overs and took two wickets, but since then the 28-year-old's bowling has tapered off. He bowled nine overs on the second day and only two yesterday before leaving the field in discomfort.

The loss of Flintoff would seriously damage England's chances of defeating Pakistan in the four-Test series which stands at 0-0, but there must now be concerns of the injury interfering with his Ashes campaign if it is not dealt with correctly.

After the Test against Sri Lanka three fragments of bone were found floating in his left ankle. Many believed that surgery was required but Flintoff's medical team opted for rest. Though he had made good progress, and passed every fitness test, the ultimate trial was always going to be bowling. And, unfortunately, the stresses caused by bowling continue to be too much for the joint in its current state. Surgery is viewed as the last resort by specialists, but my experience of injuries has told me that if there is something floating in a joint that should not be there an operation is inevitable.

The first Test against Australia in Brisbane is now only four months away and it is this series that should dominate the thoughts of Flintoff's medical team when they meet today. If Flintoff's misses the second Test he has no chance of playing in the third at Headingley, which starts three days later. It would then appear pointless to rush him back for the fourth so it is the Ashes that should take centre stage. Further rest may be advised but England cannot risk this injury flaring up in the week before the Brisbane Test, and the only way they can remove the fragments of bone is through surgery.

The absence of Flintoff would leave England with an unbalanced side in Manchester, and it will reduce the chances of there being any changes from the team that drew at Lord's. Ian Bell, who scored a hundred in the first Test, will retain his place in the squad. Debate will continue about England's wicketkeeper, but Geraint Jones will hold his place. He scored 34 runs in the first Test but kept well - taking five catches in the first innings - and Fletcher, his biggest supporter, is unlikely to give way to the Chris Read fan club.

England's bowling at Lord's was disappointing but it should be better at Old Trafford. Stephen Harmison and Matthew Hoggard had bowled only 22 first-class overs between them in the month preceding the Test, and it is to be hoped their radars have been realigned during the past week.

Liam Plunkett was also wayward. Sajid Mahmood and Jonathan Lewis offer alternatives to the fast bowler but neither has the potential to bat at No 8, a position Fletcher believes Plunkett can fill.

Wides are unavoidable in one-day cricket but in Test cricket, where far greater leeway is given, they are unacceptable. England conceded a shameful 13 wides at Lord's. Lewis would offer Strauss greater control but his lack of pace could be exposed in Manchester.

The only surprise selection could be that of Jamie Dalrymple, the Middlesex off-spinner. Dalrymple is unlikely to oust Monty Panesar, who bowled well in Pakistan's second innings but there is a chance of him playing if the pitch, like the current weather, is parched.

If Dalrymple makes his Test debut it would be at the expense of Plunkett, but the decision would place too much emphasis on the toss. If Strauss called correctly and batted first all would be fine. But should he lose it, and find himself with two seamers, there is every chance he could spend two days in the field.

Possible England squad: A J Strauss (capt), M E Trescothick, A N Cook, K P Pietersen, P D Collingwood, I R Bell, G O Jones (wkt), L E Plunkett, M J Hoggard, S J Harmison, M S Panesar, J W M Dalrymple, S I Mahmood, J Lewis.

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