Stonefaced Fletcher stays calm amid the ifs and buts

In this stormy sea of uncertainty, the one rock-steady thing about England is that face. Inscrutable, impassive, not quite stern, short of tetchy, full of concentration; its owner might have been told that he is about to inherit the earth. Or that the world will end tomorrow. Or both. Nobody could tell, which is probably the way Duncan Fletcher likes it.

He probably thinks that displaying public emotion is for cissies. The phizog has been staring out from the cricket dressing-room balconies of the world for seven years now. It has been unchanged in all manner of moments: winning the Ashes last year, being hammered by Sri Lanka last month. Television directors like to show it when all hell is going on out in the middle.

If it signifies anything it is a man who does not panic and is not about to become a song-and- dance act. It is just what England need at present, though conversely if it was another sport and he had not brought home the Ashes there would be growing calls for his head. England are now without a win in six successive series, three of the Test and three of the one-day variety. True, they have drawn two of the Test rubbers, but in all three one-day series they have been vanquished.

The impression is alive that the immense pit of goodwill which was generated last summer is not quite bottomless. The general feeling is growing that England are in a mess. They do not know their best team because they have insufficient cover, they lack ruthlessness, they are getting accustomed to a new bowling coach, Kevin Shine, who was highly recommended by, but had the misfortune to have to replace, a illustrious predecessor in Troy Cooley. And, worst of all, because it affects everything else, they are in a mess over the captaincy.

Not according to old stoneface. England still insist that Michael Vaughan is their official captain but that Andrew Flintoff, when fit again, will be the full-time stand-in captain both for the series against Pakistan beginning on Thursday and then for the defence of the Ashes in Australia starting in Brisbane in November.

"It's very difficult over the captaincy," Fletcher said last Friday morning in Cardiff, his British home, where he was taking a quick break before dealing with Pakistan.

"All the problems have to be taken into consideration, and it's how you handle people. What happens if Vaughan comes back in January? Do you honestly say, 'OK, come back but you're not captain, Fred is' ? You can't do that, you have just got to live with what is happening at the moment and persevere with it."

But what if Flintoff engineered not only victory against Pakistan but also the retention of you know what? "If, if, how many ifs do you want? You mustn't look too far down the road. I have often said that if you go on a journey and you want to go to Inver-ness it's important to get out of Cardiff first and then slowly build your way.

"When the moment comes we will handle it. Flintoff knows now he is captain until December. We could, I suppose, say, 'Andrew Flintoff, you're captain now, bad luck Michael Vaughan', but then what do you do if Andrew says after a while that it's not for him? It's not simple, but you have got to get on with it."

It would seem that Fletcher has overcome - and he had to - a reluctance to overburden Flintoff. He has come to accept that Flintoff can indeed perform all the roles which are now expected of him. It helps that he relishes the role. Fletcher is adamant that the captain runs the show.

At least his relationship with Flintoff is as sound as it was with both Hussain and Vaughan. Different characters all, but Fletcher tends to pride himself on the ability to sense how people need treating in individual ways.

"It's an incredibly difficult time," said Fletcher. "But it's all these injuries, what can you do? I can't see anyone turning round and saying that's not a problem. We have had to without our hugely influential captain, our spin-bowling all-rounder, and one of our key bowlers in Tests. In the one-dayers we were without eight players at the end. How would others cope? But I am quite happy to get on with it. Every day we go out we believe we can win."

There is a mild dichotomy in Fletcher's explanation. On the one hand, England are in trouble because they are missing so many key players, on the other it is a challenge they wish to embrace. Good young talent can come through, as it does elsewhere where they just got on with it. "It's still a lot of players. What I find strange is that Glenn McGrath went over on his ankle at Edgbaston last summer and suddenly that was only the reason we beat Australia. Whatever you say, only one was missing."

If it seems that Fletcher is slightly too sensitive to criticism, he denies it. He will always try to have a fact at his disposal to rebut the claim. Perhaps it is more that he sometimes perceives criticism where none is intended. But then the public perception of him is not entirely correct. While he would probably not have sat next to Dorothy Parker at the Algonquin, he has a sense of humour when he is among his buddies. He also likes being right.

He will always take the diplomatic route (in public, anyway). Take the injuries which have afflicted England. Unfortunate in most cases, but there is a suspicion, if only among ill-informed laymen (who make up 99.9 per cent of the people watching) that not all the casualties have been handled as rigorously as they might have been, the captain (Vaughan, that is) for one.

"We're always saying to them, 'Take your time'. I can't pass comment on whether anybody has come back too soon. How can I on something I'm not qualified to do? Let me go to hospital and get a medical degree and then I'll tell you. What I do know is that no medical men give a guarantee when they do operations. I look it as a bonus if we get any of them back." Fletcher is preparing to get on with it, as he said, focusing on beating Pakistan with one eye on the Ashes.

"I am passionate about England winning and carrying on. When we won the Ashes with so many players under 30 I thought we had four years minimum of good cricket. Now we are expecting some people to make a huge leap. We have done it before and there is no better way than learning from your mistakes. I want to get on with it." And he smiled. Hugely.

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