Strauss forced on to the defensive by Flintoff
England captain has to admit team's indiscipline after all-rounder revelations
In seeking to diminish his star all-rounder's latest piece of tomfoolery, England's captain virtually had to concede yesterday that his team were an indisciplined rabble.
This may be mildly exaggerated but eight days before the start of the most important Test series of all it was the last thing Andrew Strauss required.
During a solemn weekend trip to First World War sites, aimed at team-bonding as a precursor to the Ashes, Andrew Flintoff missed the bus taking them to the Flanders trenches. Nobody is saying if he overslept because he had been on a bender the previous evening but nobody exactly denied it yesterday either.
Strauss, attempting to deflect attention from Flintoff's latest misdemeanour, said: "We don't want to go into too much because it was a private weekend away. But he missed the bus. In fact, punctuality has been a bit of an issue recently with a few players letting things slip and I think they all realise it's not acceptable going forward.
"It's something we are trying to iron out and we have taken steps to make sure it doesn't happen again. Fred accepts he made a mistake and the appropriate action has been taken. I think he knows it's something he mustn't do again. These things do happen."
Given the precedents, rumours were flying thick and fast about whether Flintoff had had a few over the eight on Friday night and simply failed to make the coach at 8.10am. He has, after all, previous form in this regard. England, however, insisted it was an issue of punctuality but the England managing director Hugh Morris, in one of his more evasive briefings, flatly refused to deny that Flintoff had been the worse for wear.
Asked about Flintoff's relationship with alcohol, Strauss said: "I don't know, to be honest with you. That's something for him to answer. I think it's something he has been working very hard on. I think he recognises the times to drink and not to drink and it's clearly important career-wise that he stays on the right side of that. And I think on the vast majority of times he has done that. As he's got older he's become more and more aware of when the times are right and wrong."
Flintoff, approached at the Edgbaston nets where England are preparing for an Ashes warm-up game against Warwickshire beginning today, said: "I don't want to talk about it." England organised the trip to Ypres as part of coach Andy Flower's objective to broaden their horizons and learn more about leadership and team ethics. Flintoff was back with England for the first time last Friday after spending weeks recovering from knee surgery.
Like the other 15 members of the Ashes squad he visited Tyne Cot cemetery on Friday but missed the Saturday morning visit to the fields where the Battle of Passchendaele was fought having been at a team dinner the night before.
Strauss has said of the excursion: "It's important to take a step back from cricket at times and the visit was a deeply moving and humbling experience for all of the players and management." Except that his most popular player was tucked up in bed for part of it.
The captain remained equable in fielding questions about the issue yesterday but the image of the England team that emerged from his endeavours to play down Flintoff's poor timing did not reflect well on their standards.
"There have been a few instances recently," he said. "It's not malicious in any way, a lot of it is maybe not putting enough thought into how important it is for things to start on time, for buses to leave on time and that sort of stuff. We don't want to be starting team meetings late prior to an important Ashes Test. It's important these things are ironed out now."
England are clearly desperate for the matter to be cleared up and forgotten quickly. They refused to name the other players who had turned up late (though they did eventually turn up) or to stipulate what Flintoff's punishment had been. Strauss also insisted that Flintoff was not being treated any differently from other players.
"It's vitally important to a team fuctioning properly that everyone is treated the same," he said. "That's fundamental. Fred is very keen to buy into what we are doing with the side. Team unity and team spirit is vitally important for us.
"How we develop that is important as well. From my conversations with Fred he is very keen to play a full part. So I've got no worries about Fred being part of the side. I think he's got points to prove this summer and that excites me."
Whatever Flintoff did it would have been caused by boyish carelessness rather than malice. Having been confined for so many weeks trying to ensure his fitness yet again he might have felt a sense of release to be back once more where he belonged.
"Fred is always under pressure when he comes back and I feel for him in that respect," Strauss said. "He's obviously a big player for us and there's this circus that goes on around him. He is very aware that he's stuffed up. He took it on the chin and has apologised to everyone concerned. It was a very sincere apology."
Presumably, he will remind his players that the first Test match against Australia begins at Sophia Gardens, Cardiff next Wednesday at 11am. Before then, beginning today, England have a warm-up match against Warwickshire.
Vaughan calls it a day with 'no regrets'
Predictably, sadly and overshadowed by other events, Michael Vaughan, one of England's greatest captains, officially retired yesterday. It all felt slightly rushed, as though he was the supporting act before the top of the bill arrived and the real business of the day could start.
There would have been a story only if Vaughan had walked into the Exhibition Hall at Edgbaston and announced that he was playing on after all and indeed taking Andrew Flintoff's place in the side for the first Test of the Ashes series next week.
But Vaughan merely formalised the inevitable. He is departing cricket of all kinds immediately. There will be no farewell innings, no more opportunities for him to be embarrassed by bowlers hardly fit to be sharing the same stretch of grass.
Vaughan's mind, it seems, was finally concentrated not by the England selectors or the Yorkshire committee but by his young son, Archie. "I was in the garden playing with my little lad and he bowled a ball which hit a weed and knocked my off-stump out of the ground," he said. "I think that was the time. If a three-year-old is bowling me out it's time to move over."
Archie did what too many other bowlers have been doing to Vaughan this season as he launched his last-ditch campaign to relaunch his England career and have one final go at the Aussies. But he has barely managed a run and his top Championship score for Yorkshire of 43, in what proved to be his final first-class innings, was never about to persuade him or the selectors that it was worth carrying on.
There was a catch in his voice as he said: "I've given it my best shot, seven or eight months ago I was pondering the chance to maybe step down in December time but I wanted to give it one last hard effort to try to get into the Ashes squad. I had started to realise there's younger players around the Yorkshire team, first and foremost, and certainly around the England team that need to be given a chance to move the game forward."
Vaughan said he did not yet know what he would do but had not been approached about pursuing a television career. "My phone hasn't rung and it's on," he said.
"I think I want to be remembered as someone that gave my all. I don't think I've left anything out there, I have no regrets."
Nor should he.
Ponting is a 'crap' captain, says Thomson
With a week to the start of the Ashes, the phoney war has been overdue a contribution from Jeff Thomson. He put that right yesterday with a typically bullish attack – on his country's own captain.
Ponting's record may single him out as one of the most successful captains in Test cricket but Thomson, the fast bowler who terrorised England in 1974-75, is not a fan. "I thought Ricky was crap when he was first captain in 2004 and nothing much has improved since then," he surmised. "I'm not the only one who thinks that. I've always bagged him and everyone at home thinks he's shit at the captaincy. He's a great player but captaincy is a totally different thing. England have the edge in the captaincy department. But while England have a better captain, Australia have a better line-up."
7 days to go:
Anyone's who heard the Barmy Army sing might think they should stick to drinking. Nonetheless, they're releasing a tune about Ricky Ponting – 'Hey Hey Ricky'. Can't wait to hear that.
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