Duncan Fletcher is as responsible as anyone for England's failure to retain the Ashes. The England coach's selection policy and planning for the tour have been flawed but, even so, there would be no benefit in sacking him now or at the end of this Test series.
When Shane Warne bowled Monty Panesar at 2.13pm here in Perth yesterday to complete a third comprehensive victory for Australia, the destination of the Ashes became official, but anyone who truly believed that Andrew Flintoff's side were likely to retain the urn should seek medical advice rather quickly.
England played brilliantly against a complacent and out-of-form Australia in 2005. Michael Vaughan's team caught them at a vulnerable time and, with the help of Fletcher, exposed their shortcomings magnificently. England were ruthless and strong, and deserved to win. But even then, after the celebrations had finished and all the gongs had been handed out, Australia were still the best team in the world.
And nothing had really changed when England landed in Sydney six weeks ago. The Australian team may be a little more rickety than it was 18 months ago, and several of its members are nearing retirement, but it still contained four or five of the greatest players the game has seen.
Talent like this does not disappear in a flash, and the addition of Stuart Clark and Michael Hussey provided the hosts with the discipline it had lacked in 2005. The Australians, and Ricky Ponting in particular, took the defeat in England personally and they have been on a mission since they set eyes on Flintoff's squad in Brisbane. In comparison, England were without Vaughan, their inspirational captain, Marcus Trescothick and Simon Jones.
Those who believe that Fletcher should go need to think back to 1999, when England were ranked the worst Test team in the world. When Nasser Hussain was booed off the Oval balcony following an embarrassing series defeat to New Zealand, England were a ragged and undisciplined outfit in desperate need of guidance. Fletcher has addressed each of these issues during his seven years in charge and the England Test side are now a highly respected and efficient unit. They may have been walloped here, but after series wins in Asia, the Caribbean and South Africa they are the second best side in the world.
The highlight of Fletcher's reign came last summer when he masterminded England's first Ashes victory in 19 years. By helping England to defeat Australia he created a position from which he could lose the Ashes and he should not be pilloried for that. Sacking the 58-year-old would be a naïve, knee-jerk reaction that would have damaging consequences. There are very few top coaches in the world but he is one.
England's problems in Australia began when the selectors picked Flintoff to captain a squad containing several bowlers who were rehabilitating or desperately short of bowling. It was wishful thinking. Sajid Mahmood and Panesar were the only two bowlers to finish the 2006 season fit and in form. Ashley Giles had not played a first-class match for a year when he was selected for the first Test and James Anderson had taken part in a couple of end-of-season games for Lancashire. Players need far more behind them for a tour of Australia.
The England selectors dug themselves into a hole over the captaincy. When Flintoff injured his ankle during the summer they stated that he would lead the side, in Vaughan's absence, once he was fit. Captaining and preparing an international side is a huge job on its own, and combining it with the dual tasks of getting fit and finding form is too much for one man. The ankle problem has limited his influence as a bowler and undermined his leadership. The captaincy should have been given to Andrew Strauss.
England's itinerary prior to the first Test was embarrassing. The England and Wales Cricket Board will blame the ICC's Champions Trophy for the lack of preparation time but it is wrong. The ICC's events are the first on the international calendar and the boards fit Test and one-day series around them. The Ashes is important to England and Australia but it is not to the other eight member countries, who were happy that the tournament was played in October. It is only the greed of the ECB and Cricket Australia that gave the England players limited time to prepare. They knew when the Champions Trophy was but did not want to change the Ashes schedule for financial reasons.
England's preparations were insufficient but they have been on most recent tours, only against weaker teams they have got away with it. Fletcher prefers a brief acclimatisation period so that his players spend less time away from home and are fresh at the end of a tour. But on this trip the strategy has been exposed. England's players may be fresh for the fifth Test in Sydney, but what have they got to play for now?
Selection became an issue once England landed in Australia, too. It is well known that Fletcher's views on certain players differ from those of David Graveney and Geoff Miller, his co-selectors, and this became clear when Geraint Jones was selected ahead of Chris Read for the opening tour match in Canberra.
Graveney and Miller have no input when the squad go on tour. The coach and captain pick the team. It is a ridiculous situation. How can a committee allow a policy at home to be abandoned as soon as the team go abroad? Where is the continuity, and how must Read feel knowing that Fletcher does not rate him?
In Australia the coach is not a selector. The Aussies feel the position could prevent a player coming to him with a problem if he feared it could lead to his exclusion from the team. It is a sound theory and, according to reports yesterday, Fletcher tried to stand down as a selector in the summer. Australia have at least one selector present at every Test, whether it be home or away, and, after consultation with the captain and coach, they are responsible for the team sent out to play.
I do not have particularly strong views on the Jones v Read situation. Jones has had a nightmare with the bat here and must surely make way for Read in Melbourne, but Read is not going to go out and play like Adam Gilchrist. If he had kept wicket in the first three Tests it would have made no difference to the outcome.
Panesar is another issue. By not playing him in the first Test England sent out a negative message. It said they were more concerned with scoring a few extra runs than bowling Australia out. To win Test matches teams generally have to take 20 wickets and Panesar was a potential match-winner.
Panesar's performances against Sri Lanka and Pakistan in the summer earned him the right to play in the first Test. When players who do well are dropped, what sort of message does it send to the rest of the team? To Panesar's credit he did not let the disappointment affect his bowling and it was great to see him take eight wickets in Perth.
All these off-field issues, along with the lingering presence of Vaughan, cannot have helped England. But they fell apart all too easily on the park, too.
There have been several pivotal moments in the series and England have lost each of them. On the first morning in Brisbane Stephen Harmison's first-ball wide highlighted England's anxiety. They failed to handle the pressure, as they did in their first innings at the same venue. It is impossible to play catch-up against a team as good as Australia and the first Test was lost by 277 runs.
In Adelaide, Australia were under pressure after England scored 551 for 6 in their first innings. But Ponting's side coped admirably and transferred the burden back to their opponents on the final day. Once again England buckled and Australia walked away as six-wicket winners.
Credit should be given to England for the way they started the Perth Test. To bowl Australia out for 244 was a superb effort. But with the opposition down England choked again, conceding a first-innings lead. It gave Ponting's batsmen the chance to flex their muscles and, from an England viewpoint, it was ugly stuff.
England fans and sections of the media can lay the blame for what has taken place at the feet of several people, but it will make little difference. Flintoff's side were beaten by a stronger, fitter and more determined team than themselves, containing more gifted players who were better organised and prepared.
It is as simple as that.
Third Test Final Day Ratings
KEVIN PIETERSEN: Left high and dry again. 8
ANDREW FLINTOFF: Batted like a man resigned to defeat. 5
GERAINT JONES: Bring on Chris Read. 0
SAJID MAHMOOD: The game was up... 1
STEVE HARMISON: ...the Aussie beers are on ice... 1
MONTY PANESAR: ...crack 'em open. 2
GLENN MCGRATH: Kept England honest. 7
BRETT LEE: Felt the brunt of Flintoff's fury. 3
SHANE WARNE: The drop at the Oval is now forgotten. One more for 700. 8
STUART CLARK: He just gets better and better. 8
RICKY PONTING: You're a legend again, mate. 10
Shot of the Day
The nature of Andrew Flintoff's batting suggested he would not be there for a long time but he played a couple of lovely shots. The best was a superb extra cover drive off Stuart Clark.
Ball of the Day
Shane Warne constantly varies his line and length, and it only takes one mistake for him to get his man. The delivery that dismissed Flintoff was a half volley, but the ball was gone before he got to it.
Moment of the Day
When Warne bowled Monty Panesar the Australians gathered to celebrate. Panesar and Kevin Pietersen waited to shake hands but tired of waiting and set off, before Warne chased over to thank them.
Debate of the Day
Will it be 16 years before England win the Ashes again? No. Despite the nature of the defeat they have a lot of talented young cricketers. The 2009 Ashes will be close, especially if Warne and Glenn McGrath retire.
Third Test final day: Australia won toss. Australia - First Innings 244 (M E K Hussey 74no; M S Panesar 5-92, S J Harmison 4-48).
England - First Innings 215 (K P Pietersen 70).
Australia - Second Innings 527 for 5 dec (M J Clarke 135no, M E K Hussey 103, A C Gilchrist 102no, M L Hayden 92, R T Ponting 75).
England - Second Innings
(Overnight: 265 for 5)
K P Pietersen not out 60
243 min, 150 balls, 6 fours
*A Flintoff b Warne 51
97 min, 67 balls, 8 fours, 1 six
ÝG O Jones run out (Ponting TV replay) 0
11 min, 7 balls
S I Mahmood lbw b Clark 4
14 min, 10 balls
S J Harmison lbw b Warne 0
2 min, 1 ball
M S Panesar b Warne 1
9 min, 9 balls
Extras (b7 lb8 w6 nb5) 26
Total (531 min, 122.2 overs) 350
Fall (cont): 6-336 (Flintoff) 7-336 (Jones) 8-345 (Mahmood) 9-346 (Harmison), 10-350 (Panesar).
Bowling: Lee 22-3-75-1 (nb1) (9-2-20-1, 6-0-15-0, 4-1-14-0, 3-0-26-0); McGrath 27-9-61-2 (nb4 w1) (8-2-22-0, 8-2-16-0, 7-3-14-2, 4-2-9-0); Clark 25-7-56-2 (6-3-9-0, 3-1-4-0, 5-1-10-1, 3-0-8-0, 5-2-17-0, 3-0-8-1); Warne 39.2-6-115-4 (24-2-90-1, 5-1-9-0, 2-1-1-0, 8.2-2-15-3); Symonds 9-1-28-0 (w5) (1-0-1-0, 4-0-13-0, 4-1-14-0).
Progress: Fifth day: 300: 447 min, 105.3 overs. Lunch: 349-9 (Pietersen 59, Panesar 1) 122 overs. 350: 530 min, 122.1 overs. Innings closed 2.13pm.
Pietersen's 50: 193 min, 123 balls, 6 fours. Flintoff's 50: 93 min, 64 balls, 8 fours, 1 six.
Australia won by 206 runs to win five-match Ashes series 3-0.
Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pak), R Koertzen (SA).
TV replay umpire: S J Davis.
Match referee: J J Crowe.
Man of the match: M E K Hussey.