Countdown To The Ashes: Fletcher leans towards Strauss and key of C

The selectors last night agonised between Strauss and Flintoff, with the identity of the favourite less clear than ever
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England's selectors met yesterday still undecided about the identity of the man who will lead the defence of the Ashes. It was their third and final meeting in a week and if the lack of certainty betrayed doubts about both candidates, it also demonstrated their intent on getting it right.

"We haven't decided yet on the captaincy," said the England coach, Duncan Fletcher, two hours before the fateful and conclusive gathering was due to take place in Birmingham. "It's not fixed but we've got a very good idea who we want." Fletcher gave little hint about whether the preferred nominee would be Andrew Flintoff, the people's favourite and shoo-in until six weeks ago, or Andrew Strauss, the choice of many deep thinkers about the game who has lately demonstrated his fitness for the task.

The selectors would have to assess once more the obvious attractions of Flintoff: totemic player, massively popular, instinctively good reader of the game desperate to be captain. And then they would have analysed Strauss's more cerebral allure: strategic thinker, solid batsman whose form would probably thrive on leadership and would not be burdened with having to decide when and how long to bowl himself.

On the outcome possibly rests a considerable amount: the Ashes, the World Cup early next year, the general well-being and spirits of a goodly part of the nation. The decision, leaks apart, should not be known until Tuesday when the Ashes squad, together with that for the ICC Champions Trophy in India which precedes it, will be announced amid much hullabaloo at The Oval.

Bookmakers who like to convey the impression that they know everything, including the meaning of life, appeared to draw the line at the England cricket captain. On Friday afternoon Ladbrokes had Strauss at 1-2 favourite and Flintoff at 2-1 to lead the team in the First Test at Brisbane on 23 November. By yesterday afternoon those odds had almost reversed. Flintoff was 8-13 and Strauss had lengthened to 6-5. If Flintoff is captain, the bookies lose, which would at least be some consolation for Strauss's supporters.

It has been felt the three-man selection panel was split. Fletcher was thought to back Strauss largely because of the tasks Flintoff already had to undertake, the chairman, David Graveney, probably backed by the other member, Geoff Miller, was considered to prefer Flintoff.

Fletcher said: "It has always been my concern that it's a lot to ask of Andrew Flintoff but in India he was the natural choice to take over. He did a very good job there in difficult conditions away from home. But Andrew Strauss has thrown his name into the pot in equally trying conditions with a very young side in the Test and the one-dayers. It's a very, very difficult decision."

Which is about all that can be said. It was tempting to read between the lines of what Fletcher said elsewhere. He alluded to the fact that Flintoff, still recovering from surgery on his left ankle, would probably not bowl in the Champions Trophy but would still have seven weeks until the first Ashes match.

"Somebody then says, why's he not captain?" The fitness of Michael Vaughan, official captain of England still, would have spared them all that. As it was, while they were left with the most significant decision of their selectorial lives (and Strauss would probably be the correct call), naming the rest of the Australian squad was not far behind.

Its balance has to be allied with deciding (or being advised) who is fit. Fletcher would not be drawn much on the general composition either, save to confirm there would be 16 players including two wicketkeepers.

There is renewed optimism about Ashley Giles, who has begun bowling again, Jimmy Anderson and Liam Plunkett. Giles is a key squad member, despite the advances of Monty Panesar's left-arm spin this summer, and Fletcher indicated he would be included in the Champions Trophy squad of 14.

Anderson, out with a back injury all summer, is ready to bowl again. However, Fletcher conceded that Lancashire, who are in contention for the County Championship, may not want him in their team for the last match. Efforts are therefore being made to loan Anderson to another county so he can test the injury in a four-day match.

Whatever combination they finalise, England seem certain to take players who are recovering from or are susceptible to injury. To overcome that, they are sending five stand-by players to Perth as cover for the first three Tests. This, at least, increases their options.

If England are to win again, they will do so with pace. The probability is that they will take five seamers plus the all-rounder Flintoff. Two of those will be Stephen Harmison and Matthew Hoggard, and Anderson's ability to conjure venomous swingmay give him a berth.

That leaves Sajid Mahmood, Plunkett, Stuart Broad and Jonathan Lewis for the other places. Lewis has made it hard for the selectors in the past few days and he is an exemplary seam bowler, but they should be hard-headed enough to judge the difference between moving the ball under English floodlights and in the heat of the day at Perth.

The batsmen are virtually automatic choices. But it has to be decided who will be working out in the nets at Perth. Jamie Dalrymple and Ed Joyce seem good bets for Western Australian sunshine but the selectors would be wise not to overlook the unquestionable merits of Robert Key, who has toured Australia before and possessed the considerable virtue of getting up the home side's noses.

From this distance, however, no 16 they care to name look truly capable of coming back with that for which they are going. Australia, as ever, are talking a good game but they have also played as well as ever. True, they have been resting for five months but post-Ashes they won 11 of 12 Tests and drew the other.

England's latest form is also sound. It may be crucial that they managed to defeat Pakistan without Flintoff, but they would not dare set foot in Australia without him. Last night they resolved the question of whether they dare to embark without him as captain. It would be brave but correct to do so.

"I'm not as confident as I was a year ago," said Fletcher. "After we won the Ashes we had 12 or 13 players all under 30. Some of them are injured, we've got our star players injured. It's very difficult." The 16 players named on Tuesday will be finding out how difficult 77 days from now.

Head-scratching time for Fletcher - from top to tail

CAPTAINCY: There are two ways of making the decision. Both have a negative aspect. Picking Flintoff may be overburdening the side's most important player, when Strauss might be the better equipped leader. But equally Flintoff may be more deeply affected by not being chosen as captain, which might be a case for anointing him.

NUMBER EIGHT: Whoever thought this might be the most important batting position in the side? If Ashley Giles is fit after hip surgery (it's a big if), he would play there but that means no Monty Panesar. No Giles means a longer tail than a diplodocus. Or an extra batsman, leaving four bowlers to dismiss Australia twice in at least two matches.

INJURED PLAYERS: The selectors must decide how many recovering players to take. That applies to Marcus Trescothick (above), being treated for stress, as much as Giles, Flintoff and Jimmy Anderson. Flintoff has to go, but Anderson's reverse swing may be no less significant.

SECOND WICKETKEEPER: This may matter since doubts still exist over Chris Read at No 7. But Geraint Jones, sent back to Kent to restore his batting confidence, made 56 in six innings. This is not how it was supposed to be and conspiracy theorists who think Jones may be recalled can be written off. He should tour, but there is a case for his not going.

THE YOUNG BOWLER: England traditionally take a young speed merchant. Stuart Broad is the one this time. He has big support and obvious credentials - but he is still raw. No shoo-in.