Ashes countdown: Better off without Freddie and KP?

England face an Ashes summer with injury doubts hanging over both Flintoff and Pietersen – yet the dressing room is said to be happier in their absence. Stephen Brenkley asks if the 'Big Two' are expendable

In a drab, routine contest there was one hugely significant feature. The "Big Two", the biggest stars in English cricket, the most expensive players in the world, were missing. England not only won at a canter, they did so without Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen.

To conclude that it was only an insipid West Indies on helpful pitches in familiar conditions in a one-day series about which so few cared – all true – is to misinterpret the nature of the achievement. The pair are dominant figures in and out of the England dressing room.

They know their place and they recognise their worth. If they did not, they would be half the players. But it has been noticeable, and perhaps it has not been coincidental, that the other players to a man say how lovely it is in the England dressing room at present. Hang on, you think, this is an Elysian Field without the two players capable of taking England to sporting paradise. But they have not been around this past week and the side has still won. Flintoff is now in a race to be fit for the Ashes starting in July while Pietersen should be back for the World Twenty20 having rested his chronically sore Achilles tendon.

When "KP" and "Fred", their ubiquitous nicknames lending a cosy familiarity which merely accentuates their star quality, are around they tend to be the centre of attraction. This is partly because of their substantial contributions as cricketers, partly because of the force of their personalities.

The rest of the team will be well aware of what this means. Do not suppose for a moment that each and every one of them was anything but fully aware of who has been missing.

In the case of Flintoff, of course, the absences have been long and frequent. It is an oddity that England have won more Tests without him than with him since the 2005 Ashes. Pietersen has usually been there both in body and deed and is the only England player to have appeared in all 52 Tests they have played since he was awarded his first cap four years ago.

The last time neither appeared in the one-day side, however, was in 2006 and it did not then appear to be a course of action to be recommended. Sri Lanka won both of the matches, by 33 runs and eight wickets. But now there is the sense that life can continue without them if necessary. The heretical question then is whether life would be better without them, if it was not necessary? Of course, Flintoff is too prodigious a bowler and Pietersen too formidable a batsmen for their omission to be considered in any circumstances but their unavailability. In addition, Flintoff is the archetypal team player and Pietersen's allegiance is the stronger because he ditched South Africa to play for England and that sort of exchange always doubles the patriotic fervour. And yet.

It is natural that they should monopolise attention but it is also unhealthy. In almost every public conversation recently (and who knows how many private ones) England players have mentioned the pleasant state of affairs under Andrew Strauss's captaincy.

Paul Collingwood, his senior lieutenant and captain of the team in the World Twenty20 put it thus the other day: "The team ethos and the values we have got in the dressing room now are very important, and very strong."

And Stuart Broad, who has played much less cricket for England without Flintoff than with him said: "It's important to play and adapt without him and he fits back in to a role when he comes back. We can't rely on one or two players. Look at Australia – if [Ricky] Ponting goes out, someone steps in and does it."

Pretty unequivocal stuff. The "Big Two" are separate cases but both of them bring extra baggage because they transcend the team. There is always a hoopla attending Flintoff, not least because he always seems to be on the verge of injury. Pietersen cannot help but be high maintenance, as he demonstrated during the recent tour of the Caribbean, and time has yet to heal the wounds of his losing the captaincy.

Then there is the relationship between the two of them. They are not enemies but they have never quite allayed the notion that they are rivals. When the auction of players was taking place for the Indian Premier League in February it was possible to feel the relief spreading through the England team when both were bought for the same amount – $1.55m (£973,000) – making them the joint costliest players. Nobody had bragging rights.

Pietersen will be back soon and Flintoff all being well soon after that. England will be the stronger for their presence, but will they be happier?

Ashes watch

40 days to go:

The Aussies landed yesterday but something was missing – Glenn McGrath's 5-0 prediction. Instead, Michael Hussey said: "We've been impressed by England." They've gone soft.

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