Strauss leads search for a new direction

The temporary replacement for the stand-in captain joins forces with the unflappable coach to plot a course through a tough series - and beyond

In an attempt to debunk the theory that they might be lacking direction, England now appear to have three captains. There is the official captain, Michael Vaughan, who will take up his duties again who knows when; there is the quasi-official captain, Andrew Flintoff, who should resume the role later this month and has already been designated to lead the squad to Australia this autumn.

Then there is the poor sap who has to lead England out at Lord's on Thursday for the First Test against Pakistan. Andrew Strauss will become England's 77th Test captain. It will be his first and last Test in charge unless somebody else falls over again, which given the recent run of luck is not entirely to be ruled out.

There ought to be a proverb about what too many captains can do. By any standards this is a mess. It is not wholly of England's own making, but it still somehow symbolises the unfortunate state of affairs that has afflicted the team since the Ashes were won.

Not only three captains, but also various maladies that have beset so many players who brought the Ashes home last year. This began to enter the realms of buffoonery yesterday when Matthew Hoggard injured his right hand during a rugby kickabout before the start of play in the England A match against Pakistan at Canterbury. It was trodden on by his Yorkshire colleague Tom Bresnan, who did sufficient damage to require two temporary stitches supplemented by six more permanent ones. Hoggard remains confident about appearing at Lord's.

He was playing only because he had hardly bowled since the Third Test match against Sri Lanka finished on 6 June and needed the practice. He was immediately precluded from bowling yesterday. If he has not bowled before Thursday but the cut has recovered, the selectors will then have to decide if he is sufficiently match-honed.

Just in case - and with England these days it is always wise to add that - it was declared that Jonathan Lewis of Gloucestershire would be called up as cover. This represented a first of a kind, since the rest of the squad are not being announced until today.

There was at least some potentially good news about Flintoff, who has been cleared to play again after resting his troublesome ankle. He will reappear in Lancashire's Twenty20 match at Old Trafford and will need also to play in their Championship match at Canterbury to be available for the Second Test. There is no reason to suspect that he will not come through unscathed - except for the dreadful record of injuries and coming back from them that has been the scourge of England all year. It does not augur well for what is ahead. Three Test series have come and gone without an overall win (as well as three one-day series, all lost). In whatever form of the game, poor results, like absent official captains, tend to hang over dressing rooms like a cloud.

The injuries to key personnel are in many cases refusing to go away. It is probable that nothing could have been done to prevent these - although it is also true that at least three examples manifested themselves in mild form last summer.

However, it is mystifying to the layman why rehabilitation has either taken so long or has been so interrupted. There may be sound medical reasons for these: for why Vaughan needed a fourth knee operation months after the third failed to do the trick, or for why Ashley Giles had to go to Colorado for more hip surgery, which appears at last to have worked. Or why poor Simon Jones also had eventually to be dispatched to America.

But explanations have been bald, to say the least. To read an England and Wales Cricket Board official statement, it is as if players are regularly popping in and out for bits of surgery like they go to net practice. In England's case they probably are. But the question is worth asking about why rehabilitation appears to have gone awry so frequently. The ECB are not of a mind to answer it, despite requests for a medical explanation.

Considering that they have rightly put in place a team of experts it does not seem appropriate that they are not allowed then to explain themselves. Quite the opposite. It is one thing to use as a reason for the team's inept performances the number of casualties, it is another to refuse to explain why the casualties persist.

The selectors insist that Vaughan's position is sacrosanct. They are right in defending him to the hilt. In leading the side to the Ashes he showed himself to be among the best of all England's captains, moving straight into the top five.

This, however, makes it difficult for Flintoff to stamp his own imprint on the side. David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, knows this but said he would keep the job until such time as Vaughan was fit. Make no mistake, however, if Vaughan had not won the Ashes he would not be captain now. It is also the case that England changed their minds after originally intending to announce Strauss as captain for the whole series. Neither he nor Flintoff was thought to be happy.

Meanwhile, Strauss has to try to win, or more likely try to draw, a Test match at Lord's. He will probably have to do so with four front-line bowlers. If Hoggard were to be unfit he would have to do so with three bowlers with a grand total of 32 Test wickets between them. The batsmen, all six of them, will have to make plenty of runs. A century from the captain, whoever it is, would be fitting.

STRAUSS'S LIKELY XI

1 M E Trescothick (Somerset)

2 *A J Strauss (Middlesex)

3 A N Cook (Essex)

4 K P Pietersen (Hampshire)

5 P D Collingwood (Durham)

6 I R Bell (Warwickshire)

7 ÝG O Jones (Kent)

8 L E Plunkett (Durham)

9 M J Hoggard (Yorkshire)

10 S J Harmison (Durham)

11 M S Panesar (Northants)

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