He may have bagged a pair and taken only one wicket during England's humbling defeat to India at Headingley, but the absence of Andrew Flintoff from Nasser Hussain's side at The Oval will leave a hole that the captain will find very hard to fill.
Flintoff, who played in Leeds while suffering from a double hernia, is due to see a specialist today. The view is that, following the consultation, he will undergo surgery on Friday to correct the problem. With the recovery time after the operation being four to six weeks, this will rule him out of not only next week's series-deciding Test match but also the ICC Champions Trophy that starts in Sri Lanka in three weeks' time.
While there may be a temptation for England, because of the importance of The Oval Test, to delay surgery until after the game, this would be inadvisable especially for a man of his age and his style. After all, it is not through rhythm that the burly Flintoff gets the ball down the other end at 85-90 mph but sheer effort. And through playing with an injury you compensate and can put extra strains on other parts of your body which could lead to a more serious problem.
Accepting this, the Lancashire all-rounder, who has had this injury since the one-day series in June, takes the view that he should have the hernia operation as soon as possible in order to be fit for the Ashes series in Australia. Obviously, going to Sri Lanka next month is not a realistic option
Finding a replacement for Flintoff is going to be a challenge for England's selectors as the coach, Duncan Fletcher, admitted. "Not having 'Freddie' [Flintoff] is a concern to us because the balance of the side has to change" he said. "We have to go away now and see how we can fill that gap, but it is going to be hard."
Even though Flintoff has not had the most successful of summers figure-wise – he has taken 11 wickets at an average of 60.82 and scored 141 runs at 17.63 in England's six Test matches against Sri Lanka and India – his value to the side should not be underestimated.
On the field he is a source of inspiration in the way he selflessly keeps running in no matter how difficult the conditions. He and Matthew Hoggard are the men Hussain has most faith in when the going gets tough. It is they who put their hands up to bowl the "hard overs", spells when the opposition are on top and the captain is at his most needy. Although he dropped a simple catch at Headingley, Flintoff has a wonderful pair of hands at second slip and can score Test hundreds at No 7. This is why he is hard to replace.
England's plight is not helped by the all-rounder cupboard being pretty bare following injuries to three potential stand-ins with international experience: Craig White, Ronnie Irani and Paul Collingwood. Hussain also mentioned the name of Rikki Clarke, the young Surrey all-rounder who has had an excellent summer, but has recently had back trouble that stopped him bowling.
In choosing not to go for an all-rounder the balance of the England side will be badly affected. If the selectors decide to play a seventh batsman – which is tempting but unlikely after Marcus Trescothick pulled out of yesterday's four-day game against Lancashire because his broken thumb is not yet ready – a bowling attack that failed in perfect bowling conditions will be one man light. And if they do not play the extra batsmen after Alec Stewart at six, there will be a procession of batsmen with little Test pedigree entering the arena.
The positive step, the one that suggests you are going for the win is to play the extra bowler and this is the route it would be pleasing to see. If you play for a draw, you inevitably lose. So England should be bold and go for Dominic Cork, Simon Jones, Stephen Harmison or, taking The Oval's history into consideration, maybe the spin option of Richard Dawson.
Following tomorrow's meeting, where these matters will be given a good airing, Fletcher has an appointment on Monday with the England and Wales Cricket Board to discuss his future as England coach.
Fletcher said: "I think it is important that my position is sorted out before such an important tour. At this stage I would just like to talk things through with the ECB."
Fletcher has already expressed his desire to carry on because he is excited by the young talent that is around. The ECB would be wise to extend the contract of the man, who along with Hussain, has brought discipline and passion to an England side that is still moving in the right direction despite five poor days at Headingley.
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