Exit McGrath, more pain for Flintoff

Retirements for Australia, injections for England's captain and the quick kill raise many questions

Andrew Flintoff had two more injections in his left ankle yesterday. A few hours later Glenn McGrath announced his retire-ment - he will follow Shane Warne through the Test exit door at Sydney in a few days.

In their differing ways both these events were perhaps shaping the future destiny of the Ashes, while England are still coming to terms with their catastrophic loss in this series. No McGrath and no Warne equals a significant turn in the tide of events for Australia.

But the worry deepens almost by the day that Flintoff is in huge trouble, and that his predicament will shortly present England with a difficulty almost as unassailable. There have been too many instant reactions parading themselves as miracle remedies in the past few days to suggest that Flintoff's chronic injury could be terminal, but that outcome must still be considered.

McGrath was pushed into revealing his intentions as rumours grew following Warne's departure. He had intended to disclose all before the Sydney Test but was being asked the question so often that he feared giving a misleading answer.

With the terrible, but non-identical (in almost every way) twins gone there might have been a spring in England's step, but it was considerably diminished by the lack of one in Flintoff's. The nature of their defeats and the awful prospect that they could lose 5-0 has left the tourists with enough questions to fill a cricket bag.

Can England avoid a whitewash, then regain the Ashes in 2009?

Yes and yes, although the second is more likely than the first. Australia mean business in a chilling fashion. Now they have won the series, their real intent has been divulged. They want to win 5-0, and only then would they consider the spectre of 2005 to be exorcised.

Since Perth, the home side's players have made it perfectly clear that there will be no relaxation. Far from being a distraction, the retirements may be an aid. It was possible to feel sorry for McGrath yesterday. Warne, his old partner, had been attended on by hundreds two days earlier in one of the smarter function rooms at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. McGrath was down in the bowels in an indoor cricket school saying his farewells.

But he has hardly been less potent. His haul of 555 Test wickets is the biggest by a fast bowler. Since McGrath began, he and Warne have between them taken 1,254 of Australia's wickets, leaving 1,429 to be divided among the other 49 who have bowled in their time.

But England have genuine promise, with talented young batsmen and bowlers, not all of them here, who may be capable of taking 20 Australian wickets.

Should Duncan Fletcher be fired?

It can be risky trying to gauge the national mood from so far away, but soundings suggest that the coach has taken a mighty shellacking. He probably deserves it. What he does not deserve is the sack.

Fletcher is the best coach England have had. Yet for one who can spot a glitch in batsmen's techniques with one eye shut from 500 paces he has terrific blind spots. He finds it difficult to accept that anything is his fault, and while he makes much of loyalty as the ultimate virtue (and he is right to do so) it might seem sometimes that it is a one-way street. True, he showed admirable, perhaps misguided loyalty, to Ashley Giles and Geraint Jones, but that could not be said, for instance, of his treatment of Chris Read.

He has not lost the players but he may need to regain their faith. Some still think of him as a kind of deity, others hold the view they always held: splendid coach, single-minded man, un-British sense of humour. The pluses outweigh the minuses, though the scales have tipped slightly.

What of selection?

It is a mess. The nonsense of the past few weeks was waiting to happen. Of course, the procedures at home and on tour cannot be identical, but they are far enough apart as to be alien.

A three-man panel, including Fletcher, picks the squad at home, with a selector present on the morning of the match for consultation on the XI. On tour, Fletcher and the captain pick the team. Consultation would be eminently desirable and should be insisted upon. In practice it is not happening. On the eve of the Perth Test, David Graveney rang the team's media relations manager for information on the team. Nobody expects the Fletchers and the Graveneys to be spending Christmas together, but a better working relationship is important.

It is difficult to see what could be gained by Fletcher's withdrawal as a selector. He has been one for too long. Making him the sole selector would also be foolish. He does not see enough. Graveney needs more power abroad and the pair need their heads banging together.

However, the state of selection generally was reduced further by the unwillingness to name a captain for the Commonwealth Bank Series and the selection of two keepers. Since one of them is the uncapped 36-year-old Paul Nixon - three months before the World Cup - everybody is entitled to ask what the hell the selectors have been either on or doing these past four years since the last tournament.

Why did Monty Panesar not play from the start?

Hindsight is blindingly clear. But Fletcher was swayed by two things: his loyalty to Giles and the unimpressive way Panesar bowled before the First Test. Combining the two, he (and Flintoff) came up with the wrong answer. But it was not quite the reckless choice many suggest.

Should Flintoff have been chosen as captain?

The selectors made this more difficult for themselves than necessary. Both men in contention for the job had virtues, but it was clear that too much would be asked of Flintoff. And it has been. Andrew Strauss, as he had already demonstrated, would have thrived in the role.

Flintoff's ankle has made it miserable for him despite his ever-charming smile. He has not bowled between Tests, he has not bowled more than five overs in a spell. It cannot go on like this.

Glenn's Farewell: 'It's a tough decision, and it's an easy one'

And then went the other one. It has perhaps been part of Glenn McGrath's role to be upstaged by Shane Warne. In a play with two leading men, one name usually has to be above the titles.

McGrath was never a support act but nor was he quite the outright star. It was probably inevitable that he would have his farewell overshadowed by the man who had always assumed the stage so easily, and as certain that McGrath did not mind.

They can replace me, he said; they can never replace Shane. As if rangy fast bowlers who have accuracy and bounce, and understand their worth (the true meaning of mental strength) are two a penny. "It's only been in the last few games that I've really thought about it and decided to finally hang up the boots," he said, with an occasional catch in his voice.

"It's a tough decision, and it's an easy one. It's tough because I still like playing. I love getting out there with my team-mates, the body feels great, I couldn't be happier with my bowling.

"But it's easy because of basically everything else that goes with it: the training, the travel, the time away from home. It's getting tougher to leave home with [his wife] Jane and the kids, who are growing up all the time."

He insisted that the health of his wife, who is fighting breast cancer, had nothing to do with his departure. He will be missed barely less than Warne.

Stephen Brenkley

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