The vultures were circling. Andy Flower saw them coming and gently ushered them away. "I still have confidence in my ability to lead this group in the right direction," he said, having had 24 hours to digest England's latest heavy defeat, which leaves them 4-0 down in the Ashes series.
With that from Flower, any self-respecting vulture would think twice about coming too close again, presently. England's coach, self-confessed architect of the team's demise against Australia, not only wants to continue in the job but recognises that in other respects a watershed has been reached. After the fifth and final Test in Sydney, things may never be the same again.
"It does feel that way a bit," said Flower. "I do think that some things have to change because it is the ending of an era for this team and after Sydney it will be the start of a fresh cycle in some way."
Flower will have friends in the places that matter, enemies in the places that do not. He is dependent on the backing of rational men, who will see that he still has a Test win-loss record of 30-16 in his time as coach and has overseen 12 series victories as opposed to four losses, which include three Ashes victories set against one defeat.
Unfortunately for Flower and his teams – off the field and on – that one is the most recent and dramatic of all and it has, unsurprisingly, led to calls for his replacement. Sackings are the first refuge of a fool, like patriotism is the last of a scoundrel, as if they offer some kind of panacea.
Flower has clearly made mistakes of mood and selection for this tour against revitalised Australian opponents, whom he might have allowed his team to underestimate. But it would have been a brave (though truly perspicacious) set of selectors who had begun disbanding or reshaping this team after their 3-0 win at home in the summer.
Perhaps they should have screwed their courage to the sticking place, though it would have been difficult, bordering on impossible, to know whom to discard. That has become a little clearer on a tour that has cast doubt on the long-term future of many players, from the high-achieving durability of Kevin Pietersen and Jimmy Anderson to the fragile inexperience of Jonny Bairstow and Michael Carberry.
In recognising that a new course has to be plotted, Flower has taken a significant step. He will sit down with Paul Downton, the new managing director of England cricket who has just arrived in Australia, in the next few days and outline his vision. Ultimately, of course, it is not Downton who will select the sides. Part of the way forward has already been shown by the untimely departures of Jonathan Trott with a stress- related illness and Graeme Swann, who retired three matches into the series when he realised his power had waned too far. They have clearly concentrated Flower's mind further and it was possible to deduce from what he said that a few cheap runs and wickets for old hands against Sri Lanka early this summer were not what he had in mind.
"I think this group of players have had some really good times," he said. "But we have seen Trott disappear at the start of the tour, we have seen Swann disappear after three Test matches and those have been two absolute stalwarts for us, Trott as solid as anyone can be at No 3 and Swann providing an outstanding career over six years, quite a short career but what amazing results he got in those 60 Test matches.
"Hopefully, Trott comes back at some stage, we don't know about that, but with the passing of those two and some of the results we have got on this tour, I think it is fair to say that post-Sydney, the England management should view this as starting afresh."
Flower was not as distraught as some would have liked. Actually, this was refreshing because it means he may well bring more clarity to the decisions he has to make.
He knew that England have made a mess of things, that Australia have been unstoppable. But when England lost heavily to South Africa at The Oval two summers ago, his anger was so evident and his consequent frame of mind so disturbed – the Pietersen affair was also rumbling at the time – that he may not have been at his best as a coach for the rest of the series.
It sounded and looked as though he meant it when he said: "I am not demoralised actually, I am very disappointed but I am very hungry to succeed, starting in Sydney." Part of his plan for change does not involve Alastair Cook, whom he wants to continue as both captain and opening batsman. After two series when Cook's batting has so clearly not been as effective as it was (his average in nine Tests against Australia since last July is now 28.28) this argument may not be sustainable for long.
It would be a pity if his captaincy faltered because of the desire to stay as opener but that could not be ruled out. For now, there has to be a concerted effort to find him a reliable partner. Since Andrew Strauss retired, he has already had three in Nick Compton, Joe Root and Michael Carberry, who have so far lasted, respectively, nine, five and four matches. Carberry does not look the answer.
That, however, is but one of several questions for Flower to ponder before he meets Downton. Others concern the middle order and its order, the bowling, the wicketkeeping and what type of team Flower and Cook want to control.
It is just possible that Downton, if he has read some of the more excitable tracts, may bring along Flower's P45. But careers as an accomplished cricketer, who originally had the burden of following Alan Knott into the Kent side, and bore it with mature aplomb, and latterly as a durable City banker, betokens a rounded, intelligent mind. He will doubtless recognise Flower's errors and appreciate that he is the man to bring the Ashes home again.Reuse content