Flintoff ruled out of first two Tests
England's dilemma over whether to pick Andrew Flintoff for next week's first Test has been decided for them, with the England allrounder unavailable for the first two Tests against New Zealand after picking up a side strain.
Flintoff, who has enjoyed an encouraging start to the season for Lancashire following ankle surgery in the winter, experienced some discomfort in his left side while bowling for Lancashire yesterday at Old Trafford. He was assessed and received treatment by the Lancashire medical team and subsequent scans on Friday evening confirmed the diagnosis of a side strain.
The ECB insisted, however, that Flintoff "has not experienced any discomfort in his left ankle and continues to make excellent progress in his rehabilitation from surgery last October".
"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," Flintoff said. "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. It's very frustrating to have picked up an injury at this time but I want nothing more than to return to the England side and will continue to do everything required to make myself available for selection."
All the talk over the past few weeks has revolved around Flintoff's impressive form with the ball, while he has barely scratched a run with the bat. Justin Langer and Stuart Law have both urged England to recall him for the first Test, but there were notes of caution sounded from Mike Atherton, Geoffrey Boycott and Ian Botham, who believed he was not quite ready. The decision has been made for England's selectors, however, and the 12-man squad to face New Zealand for the first Test at Lord's will be announced on Sunday morning.
With Flintoff now out of the equation, the selectors are spared making a major decision at least until the third Test at Trent Bridge. The key issue now is the fitness of Paul Collingwood who needed an injection in his right shoulder yesterday. If batting cover is needed, Owais Shah's name will once again be in the equation, but he doesn't provide any back-up bowling. Instead the opportunity could arise to recall Ravi Bopara or hand a first call-up to Luke Wright, who made a timely 120 for England Lions against the New Zealanders at The Rose Bowl. Both Bopara and Wright could offer Collingwood's quota of medium pace.
England have recent experience of coming unstuck against New Zealand, but an attack of Ryan Sidebottom, Stuart Broad and probably James Anderson should be sufficient to dispatch the visitors and would give the team that won the final two Tests of the previous series another chance. Anderson is the member of that trio under threat after a profligate display in Napier. His form for Lancashire so far this season has been mixed, but nine wickets against Durham came at the right time and he has a good Test record a Lord's. Last year he claimed seven wickets against India and also bagged five on his debut in 2003.
Matthew Hoggard, who was dropped in the winter, will come back into the frame after a solid start for Yorkshire although he has lacked zip for England Lions. The consensus is that he was unlucky to be dropped after a poor performance in Hamilton and, although there is no automatic route back for him despite 248 Test wickets, he would be a solid presence in the squad in case a bowler pulls up injured.
If Collingwood is fit the batting line-up will pick itself. They haven't, however, set the county scene alight this season. Michael Vaughan has a top score of 42 which represents profligacy compared with Collingwood who has managed just 32 in five innings. Tim Ambrose has the highest score of the likely top seven, 156 against Leicestershire, but is also a slight concern after suffering a stiff neck. One major decision has been put on hold for the selectors, but there is potential for a couple more headaches.
Possible England 12
Michael Vaughan (capt), Alastair Cook, Andrew Strauss, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, Paul Collingwood, Tim Ambrose (wk), Stuart Broad, Ryan Sidebottom, Monty Panesar, James Anderson, Matthew Hoggard.