Until Andrew Flintoff began to fulfil his enormous potential English cricket had been searching desperately for the next Ian Botham. Now, having found him, the challenge for England's selectors is to find a suitable replacement for the world's leading all-rounder if he were to pick up an injury.
Yesterday Paul Collingwood, the would-be Durham all-rounder, was remarkably handed the task of becoming the next Andrew Flintoff when he was surprisingly named in England's 16 man squad for South Africa. England's selectors have often thrown in a player from leftfield, but Collingwood, in this role, is leftfield enough to be sitting in the 22nd row of an adjacent stand.
Explaining their decision, David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, said: "We have chosen Paul Collingwood because we feel that his experience of the international arena, and his adaptability, will be of real benefit to the touring party and will better enable us to retain the right balance to the side in the event of injury to our one all-rounder, Andrew Flintoff.
"There is no longer the same amount of cricket played on tours as there once was and we have picked Collingwood ahead of Bell because we feel he is the sort of character who can step up to the plate at a moment's notice. We have a high regard for him as a person and as a cricketer."
Collingwood has many qualities as a man. The 28-year-old impressed everybody during last winter's tours of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and West Indies with his work ethic and the selfless way in which he went about his job. He was a popular member of the team and and it is these virtues, rather than his ability on the field, which have won him a place in this squad ahead of Ian Bell. But whether these attributes will bring England closer to beating Australia must be very doubtful.
Collingwood is no Flintoff, and he will never be - neither is Bell for that matter. But it is hard to work out how a player with a modest first-class career can be selected ahead of one of England's most exciting young talents.
Had both players been overlooked for a fifth specialist fast bowler there would have been little fuss because nobody expected either of them to be named. But the fact that Collingwood has been selected in preference to Bell is a major issue.
In many ways they are similar cricketers - they bat, bowl medium pace and field superbly - but whichever way you look at their records Bell comes out on top.
Before yesterday's announcement Collingwood's first-class career batting average was 31.25 while Bell's is 43.25. In 2004, Collingwood has scored just 322 runs at an average of 29.27 while Bell has amassed 1,525 at 80.26. And even with the ball Collingwood is outgunned. This season Bell's gentle medium pace has taken 15 wickets at an average of 23 while Collingwood's 12 scalps have cost 38 runs a piece.
"Yes, it was a surprise," said Collingwood on hearing the news. "But I am relieved more than anything. It is nice to know that they have not forgotten about me and I am still there or thereabouts. I am a different player to Flintoff. I mean, I am never going to bowl at 90mph and hit the ball out of the ground like he does but I am a versatile player and hopefully I can try and fill that hole if it happens."
Having picked Collingwood, there must be doubts that England would turn to him if Flintoff were to pick up an injury. In the two Test matches he played for England last winter Collingwood did not embarrass himself - in difficult conditions in Sri Lanka he scored a couple of 30s. But there was also little to suggest that he would take Test cricket by storm and this, along with injuries, is why the likes of Andrew Strauss, Robert Key and Bell had forged ahead of him.
Because of this England would be better off playing a specialist batsman or bowler in place of Flintoff rather than a bits and pieces player who is yet to show he can perform either skill to the required standard.
Mark Butcher and Chris Read rightly regained places in a squad containing only two changes from the party which toured the West Indies in March/April. Although the hard work took place in Bangladesh before Christmas it was the tour of the Caribbean which gave Vaughan's side the confidence to go on a run which has seen his side win 10 of their last 11 Tests.
This success has been rewarded by the England and Wales Cricket Board, which has increased this year's allocation of 12-month central contracts from eight to 12.
Bell was given some consolation when he was given a place at this winter's National Academy. The Warwickshire batsman will be joined by the South African Kevin Pietersen, who is now available for England selection and will train at Loughborough before Christmas before touring the United Arab Emirates and Sri Lanka in February.
M P Vaughan* (Yorks, capt) 50
J M Anderson* (Lancs) 11
G J Batty (Worcs) 5
M A Butcher* (Surrey) 69
P D Collingwood (Durham) 2
A Flintoff* (Lancs) 40
A F Giles* (Warwicks) 40
S J Harmison* (Durham) 23
M J Hoggard* (Yorks) 33
G O Jones* (Kent, wkt) 8
S P Jones* (Glamorgan) 8
R W T Key (Kent) 12
C M W Read (Notts, wkt) 12
A J Strauss* (Middlesex) 7
G P Thorpe* (Surrey) 93
M E Trescothick* (Somerset) 54
* denotes award of a 12-month ECB contractReuse content