Lord's Preview: England are left pining as injury rules Flintoff out of first two Tests

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The Independent Online

England's selectors met for more than six hours last week in a session that was described as fruitful and rewarding. They may have needed another six hours yesterday after talismanic all-rounder Andrew Flintoff, doubtless the subject of much of the original conversation, was injured yet again.

Flintoff strained his left side while bowling for Lancashire on Friday and will not be available for consideration for at least the first two matches of the Test series against New Zealand that begins at Lord's on Thursday. It is rotten, if predictable, luck for Flintoff, whose recall had been much anticipated if not completely assured. The only consolation is that the injury is not to the left ankle that has kept him out of England's previous 13 Test matches and on which he had surgery for the fourth time last October. Nor is the ankle related to the side, it is confidently reported (though the caveat ought to be added that much has been confidently reported about Flintoff's medical condition before).

Although the prognosis means that Flintoff will not be considered for the opening two Tests, the probability is that he will be omitted from the whole series, and that a more rational date for recall is now the Test rubber against South Africa which starts in July.

Many judges – and everybody has an opinion on Fred's fitness – felt that should have been the case without the intervention of the side strain. He will need to groove his bowling again as well as hone his match-fitness.

Flintoff said all that he could say. "Obviously I'm bitterly disappointed to be unavailable for Test selection due to this injury as I'm really enjoying my cricket with Lancashire and feel my bowling has been improving with each match. I've put in a lot of hard work to get to this point after ankle surgery last year and I know I can overcome what isn't a significant injury."

The trouble is what it has always been: as long as Flintoff is not around, England spend their time pining for him. The selectors will have discussed other matters, including the most effective method of beating New Zealand, though that will not have dominated conversation either.

Due respect must be paid to the first tourists of the summer but they should be seen off; if they are not, the challenges to follow will assume grotesque proportions. The minds of the newly configured four-man panel (is it not about time, incidentally, that the first female selector was mooted?) will have drifted ahead to the humdinger of a series which is promised by South Africa later this summer, and on beyond that to next summer and the Ashes.

It is often said that England fret too much about the Ashes and that they should deal with matters at hand, though it is usually Australians saying it. Whatever, it is no use making plans for next May. England's selectors, led for the first time by Geoff Miller in the new roleof national selector, have tostart here. Thus they considered the whys and wherefores of a four-man bowling attack and whether Flintoff could be part of that.

That presumably led to whether he is now up to batting at six, and if he bats at seven whether that would allow in a more accomplished wicketkeeper (eg Chris Read) to bat at eight. The combination of seam bowlers was assessed and the crucial holding role of Monty Panesar, especially in a four-man attack and more especially still in a four-man attack that involves Flintoff, was assessed.

For now, Jimmy Anderson, who has never been given a decent run, may keep his place having found some form. But Chris Tremlett could have nosed in front of the other seamers.

Different opposition in different series might demand differing strategies. Selectors, like players, must adapt quickly and adeptly, bearing in mind the merits of continuity and the disadvantages of injury.

Suddenly they must consider Paul Collingwood's dodgy shoulder, which has needed an injection. Collingwood will wish to play at all costs: there may be no easy way back.

Presuming his involvement, the batsmen all look temporarily safe. But pressure will grow quickly this summer, and it may grow in the direction of the prolific Mark Ramprakash, whom Michael Vaughan, the captain, noticeably refused to rule out of contention.

Vaughan, like the selectors, was also looking ahead and said: "I think England have got a very good chance next summer because I think we're in a better place than we were a year before '05. We have bowlers who swing the ball and that is one of the key areas. If you're swinging the ball and Monty is spinning the ball like he can you can take 20 wickets against Australia. That's where you're going to beat them."

Maybe, maybe not. But first, please, the other Antipodeans.