There was an underlying feeling that Mark Butcher was making his last appearance in England colours when it was announced yesterday that a wrist injury had prematurely ended the Surrey captain's tour of South Africa.
Butcher has made 71 appearances for England since his Test debut in 1997, but his position in Michael Vaughan's side has come under increased pressure following a run of injuries, inconsistent form - Butcher had not scored a Test century in his previous 32 innings - and striking performances from Robert Key and Ian Bell.
Both of these players benefited from Butcher's bad luck during the summer of 2004 and it is they who will vie for the number three spot in England's batting order. Key, who replaced the injured Butcher in Cape Town, has been given the first opportunity to impress, but the Kent opener will be aware of Bell breathing down his neck. The Warwickshire batsman was due in South Africa on 17 January as part of England's one-day squad but he is now expected to arrive before Thursday's fourth Test.
"The last six months have been bad for me," Butcher said. "I was pretty despondent about things last summer but this has come as a bigger blow. I thought I had got over all my injury problems. It is all a bit galling at the moment."
Butcher sustained the injury to his left wrist at the start in early December during a weight training session in Johannesburg. Initially the 32 year-old felt pins and needles in his left hand but they quickly disappeared. Butcher thought little of the complaint until it resurfaced during the Boxing Day Test in Durban.
Butcher managed to get through the game and had two cortisone injections in the joint, hoping they would allow him to play in Cape Town. But the treatment failed to make any difference and he was forced to withdraw. Since then Butcher has had his wrist in a brace and a week of intensive physiotherapy.
But once again there has been no improvement and this became apparent when he tried to hit a few tennis balls at practice yesterday morning. Butcher looked in severe discomfort and walked out after five minutes. Butcher, who has scored 4,288 runs for England at an average of 34.58, will see a hand specialist in Johannesburg before returning home at the end of the week.
This latest injury finishes off a dreadful six months for the left hander. After making 42 consecutive Test appearances for England Butcher strained a calf muscle in July playing in Twenty20 game for his county. It ruled him out of the first Test against the West Indies.
Then, while driving to The Oval for treatment, he was involved in an accident and suffered whiplash. Butcher had almost regained full fitness when he pulled a muscle in his thigh lifting boxes at home. It was these problems which initially gave Key and Bell the chance to show their credentials.
"The selectors' logic makes sense," Butcher said. "I will not be able to play in this Test and, having not played for two and a half to three weeks, it makes sense to play Robert Key for the last two games. I know I have a central contract but if these guys come in and do really well I will be back in the ranks, like everybody else in county cricket. But that is the nature of being injured and I have to make sure that I am fit and scoring runs at the start of the season. We will then see which way the cards fall."
Butcher is not the only England player to have fitness problems in the build-up to the fourth Test against South Africa. Andrew Flintoff suffered a minor side strain in the third Test, an injury which prevented him from bowling at yesterday's practice session.
England are confident that the Lancashire all-rounder will be fit to bowl at the Wanderers but there is talk that he will not test the injury until Wednesday at the earliest. It is understandable that England want to give Flintoff as much time as possible to recover but they also need to find out whether he can bowl on two consecutive days. And if England want to find this out he has to bowl at today's practice.
Flintoff's fitness, and the nature of the pitch here, is sure to give the England selectors plenty to think about. If he is fully fit then there is no problem and the side remains the same as the one that lost in Cape Town.
And should Flintoff be unfit to bowl the puzzle remains quite simple. Flintoff will play as a batsman but the selectors then have to decide whether to play three or four seamers on a pitch that is currently damp. If they pick James Anderson as the fourth seamer, Ashley Giles or Key will miss out. But if the selectors are unsure about their talisman they may, as a precautionary measure, select Paul Collingwood ahead of Key, in the hope that his medium pace may act as a fourth seamer.
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