Is Flintoff still the right man to lead England against Australia... or should it be Strauss?
When Andrew Strauss left Headingley five and a half weeks ago, it was a no-brainer. England, with Strauss as captain, had just been walloped by Sri Lanka in the NatWest one-day series for a fifth consecutive time and the team's summer appeared to be in total disarray. Andrew Flintoff was injured and a portion of the blame for England's malaise was being directed at Strauss. His tactics, field placings, body language and inability to motivate the side were being questioned by journalists and former players alike. In their minds, Flintoff, the man of the people, was the obvious choice as Michael Vaughan's replacement because Strauss, with his posh voice and his public school background, was obviously not up to the job.
David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, stated that Flintoff would captain England as soon as he regained fitness and, with Vaughan being ruled out, he would lead the team's quest to retain the Ashes. Basically, the captaincy was a closed shop. But, after watching a Strauss-inspired England dismantle a strong and talented Pakistan side to claim their first series victory since last summer's Ashes, opinions appear to be changing. Is a recuperating Flintoff still the right man to lead England in Australia, or should it be Strauss? The latter's performance appears to have re-opened the issue as far as the selectors go, too, with Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, suggesting that the captaincy would be debated before the squad for Australia is announced in early September.
"Strauss has captained the side very, very well," said Fletcher. "It wasn't easy for him after Sri Lanka but he showed he is a real strong character. The captaincy has not affected him, as he showed by scoring hundreds in two of England's second innings, which is the hardest time for a batsman to score a hundred. We debate all positions in the side. We have spoken about Flintoff being our leader in Australia and will speak about it again when the time comes."
At the conclusion of England's 167-run victory over Pakistan on Tuesday, Strauss gave the strongest indication yet that he would one day like the job on a permanent basis. He is, however, no fool and he knows that the last thing he should do is become embroiled in a leadership contest with Flintoff.
It is a challenge Strauss cannot win. Flintoff desperately wants to captain England and he is arguably the most popular sportsman in the country. Public and a high proportion of media opinion will, no doubt, be behind him and Strauss would suddenly be perceived as the villain for attempting to deprive England's talisman of the job he wants.
Yet Strauss is the man who should be Vaughan's long-term replacement. He has shown that he is more than capable of doing the job and he will sit down with Fletcher and work out where the team want to be in two years' time. In India and against Sri Lanka, Flintoff showed that he too is an inspirational and capable leader but it is not in his mentality to sit down and plan. Flintoff's life is at times so frantic that he needs an agent to tell him what he is doing tomorrow.
The appointment of a new "official" England captain will only be made if Vaughan fails to recover from his chronic knee problem, but this decision is unlikely to take place before the start of next summer. If Strauss were to say that he wanted to lead England in Australia - which he won't - he would run the risk of alienating his most important player. Flintoff is not the sort of man who sulks when he does not get his own way, but the last thing Strauss would want to do is create a potential communication barrier between himself and the man he most needs on his side.
Therefore, despite Strauss' impressive performances against Pakistan, Flintoff remains the man who should lead England in Australia and to the 2007 World Cup. There is a danger that it all may prove too much for Flintoff, as Ian Botham found out in the Eighties, but it is a route England must travel down if they wish to avoid the risk of any cliques developing in their close-knit dressing room.
The England captaincy is not the only contentious decision the selectors face when Flintoff returns to the side in Australia. In Brisbane, a player will have to make way for the all-rounder, but who will it be? Initially it was Ian Bell, but having scored centuries in each of the three Tests against Pakistan, it would be a cruel call to drop him.
Marcus Trescothick, Andrew Strauss and Kevin Pietersen are guaranteed their places in the side and it is hard to see Alastair Cook missing out. This leaves Paul Collingwood, who scored a wonderful 186 in the first Test against Pakistan, as England's most vulnerable batsman. Collingwood could play if England opted to enter the first Test with just four bowlers but by doing this the selectors would be fudging the issue. England have played their best cricket with five bowlers and on flat Australian pitches, under a scorching sun, they will need the extra option.
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