Strauss the answer to England's leading question

The two stand-ins have done outstandingly - but only one can take charge for toughest tour of all

The real answer to the question of who is best equipped to lead England in the Ashes this winter is hobbling round on a pair of sponsored crutches. He was most recently seen in public opening a trophy room on behalf of the television company who help to pay his wages.

It would have been so much easier for all concerned, not least the selectors, had the masterly Michael Vaughan been available. But his knee, recently operated on for the fourth time, will insist that he cannot be captain of England in Australia this winter.

Vaughan finally and irrefutably confirmed it when unveiling several trophies, including the Ashes (or a replica thereof), as he launched the Sky Festival in Manchester on Friday. This is unfortunate for Vaughan and for what was his side, but it is essential to get over it. His absence has now led to further complications, because in it two outstanding replacement candidates have emerged.

This is a tale of two Andrews, Flintoff and Strauss. As it happens, the name of Andrew derives from the ancient Greek word meaning manly. Suffice to say that both players meet the definition. It cannot now be a straightforward choice.

It will become less so should Strauss, who has already led England to their first home-series win against Pakistan for 24 years, extend the lead to 3-0 in the Fourth Test at The Oval beginning on Thursday. Possession in cricket, as in other walks of life, is not everything, but it still represents a considerable proportion of the law.

This is not a time for either men to have champions, but it is possible to put a case, as, for instance, John Emburey did for Strauss last week. It is the most pertinent topic in the game: Chris Read has superseded Geraint Jones for now, Monty Panesar is on the cusp of persuading the selectors that they should rebalance the side at the expense of Ashley Giles when Giles has recovered fitness.

Flintoff, as he should, remains favourite. To lead England in Australia is among the greatest honours for an England cricketer (knighthoods and other gongs notwithstanding). It eluded Lord Cowdrey and David Gower. It may eventually elude Vaughan.

The simplest fact is that Flintoff was preferred for the captaincy before Strauss, and properly so. If, therefore, he recovers from the injury which allowed Strauss to become captain for the second Test series of the summer, against Pakistan (and he said in a television interview yesterday that he expects to come back "fitter than ever" by mid-October if his rehabilitation stays on course), it should follow logically that he should resume in the role.

But the reality is that it is no longer so elementary. England's coach, Duncan Fletcher, said as much in the aftermath of the splendid victory at Headingley on Tuesday. It was some feat that Strauss helped to orchestrate, and it was only embellished because he did it without his talismanic player, the man he replaced as captain: the monumental Flintoff.

The chairman of selectors, David Graveney, has never, despite some reports to the contrary, guaranteed Flintoff the job in Australia.

But it is known that he probably favours Flintoff. Graveney would contend that it comes down to two issues: would Flin-toff get the best out of himself; and if he were to be overlooked, would he sulk or would he continue to be inspirational? Probably not, since he is not that kind of man. As he said on Sky Sports' CricketAM yesterday: "I will do what I am asked. If there's a chance of captaining I would love to, but I am two weeks out of an operation, so first and foremost I need to get back on the pitch."

Flintoff and Strauss have a mutual respect and Emburey, for one has not been surprised by the emergence of Strauss's leadership qualities. "He is a player who performs, which helps gain respect, but you also do that because of who you are," said Emburey. "Strauss is a very rounded character with a great temperament. His attitude is absolutely superb. He is a good reader of people. I think it is not something he would necessarily crave, but sits very well with him."

That was some testimonial, but Emburey recognised Flin-toff's immense virtues as player and inspirational leader. Yet, in common with others, he pointed out one possible shortcoming. Flintoff's approach to himself may not be ideal.

"We saw with Fred at Lord's against Sri Lanka that he tended to overbowl himself to win the game. Nobody could question his commitment, but he does have to look after his body. Whereas somebody else handling him would use him perhaps a little bit more wisely."

There is something in this and there is not. If in doubt, other captains - yes, the great Vaughan - have not been slow in turning to Fred. Who bowled most overs (by a margin of 30) for England in the Ashes last summer? And who did so again in Pakistan late last year and was flogged virtually to a standstill in a vain cause in the final Test in Lahore?

The answer, of course, is Flintoff. And while it is true that he overbowled himself at Lord's against Sri Lanka in valiant but forlorn pursuit of victory, there is another statistic. In the two full series in which he has been captain, against India in India and Sri Lanka at home, Flintoff did not bowl the most overs.

"I will bowl whenever I need to," Flintoff said. "The state of the game dictates how many overs I bowl and when I bowl them."

The tactical element must not be overlooked. Flintoff was not utterly convincing throughout India, yet in Bombay at the last he imbued his charges with such belief that they drew the series with one of England's most dazzling victories (abetted, it should be recalled, by a resolute hundred from Strauss). Strauss has grown into the job. "I think he is growing up in this team, developing character with regard to captaincy," said Emburey.

There is also the aspect - no mean one - of who would be least affected by the captaincy. Make no mistake, Flintoff wants it, he has often been bowled over by the privilege, he would honour the position. But Strauss's more studious character may bring something extra and it may make him a better player.

The Oval may tell us a little more. It will still probably be Flintoff for Australia. And why not? But a bolder choice of the two Andrews, real men both, a choice designed both for the longer term and a gruelling Ashes campaign, would be Strauss.

Four reasons to hope for glory

1 MONTY PANESAR

At Old Trafford, the analysis of coach Duncan Fletcher was rather misinterpreted. Fletcher, not wishing to become a hostage to media fortune, erred on the cautious side. He was wholly convinced by Headingley. Panesar is the real deal, Australia know it.

2 SAJID MAHMOOD

If circumspection applied to Panesar, it should be liberally sprinkled on Mahmood. But when he gets it right he is a sight to behold. The last thing Australia want is another 90mph-plus Englishman with reverse swing.

3 IAN BELL

Three hundreds in as many Tests, but the Australian jury will still be out. It would be doing England a favour if they stayed there. They doubt Bell because of his demeanour, not his talent. But he has matured. He is now an executioner in choirboy's clothing.

4 FIELDING

Part of Australia's pre-eminence has been down to their wonderful fielding. England's hard work is paying off. They are hitting the stumps and (mostly) holding the catches. Match Australia here, and they can retain the Ashes.

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