Pietersen in Ashes fitness race to shore up England

Star batsman desperately needed but not expected to begin comeback from knee injury until mid-June

ENGLAND'S batting frailties were exposed in the first Test against New Zealand, and now there are fears that star batsman Kevin Pietersen may not be fit to shore up the middle order by the time the Ashes start in July.

England's number four has not played any cricket since the second Test against the Kiwis in Wellington in March after suffering bruising to the kneebone. He sustained the damage during fielding practice before a warm-up match in February and it initially appeared innocuous. But the injury has deteriorated and Pietersen was forced out of the New Zealand tour, the lucrative Indian Premier League and the Champions Trophy, which takes place in England next month.

The South African-born batsman is due to begin his comeback with Surrey in June, but if there are any more setbacks he could be struggling to be fit for the first Test against the Australians. Even if things go according to plan he will only have a few innings to find his form.

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Acknowledging the problem, England bowling coach David Saker said the team were "not sure" if Pietersen would be ready for the Ashes.

"There is no question that England are weaker for Pietersen's prolonged absence, as two batting collapses at Lord's testify, and the importance of getting him fit in time for the first Ashes Test ... is paramount," says the Daily Mail.

England have struggled to fill vacant berths in the batting order over the last couple of seasons. Players like Ravi Bopara, Eoin Morgan and James Taylor have failed to hold down a place in the team, while current opener Nick Compton and Yorkshire batsman Jonny Bairstow have endured mixed fortunes.

Established batsmen like Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott have also struggled of late. Bell has managed one Test century since the start of 2012 and Jonathan Trott has just three in his last 42 innings.

The Daily Telegraph says Pietersen's absence upsets the batting line-up. "England's middle order lacks the dangerous, unpredictable element Pietersen can provide," it says. "The top three ... bat with occupation of the crease in mind, useful in Test cricket, but the scoring rate can slow to almost a standstill, increasing the need to have a player of Pietersen's flair batting at four."

Pietersen also missed the bulk of the 2009 Ashes series in England with an Achilles injury, although the home side prevailed without him.

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