The Ashes: Folly of the Flintoff burden

Yes, Fletcher has made mistakes but it would be kow-towing to shrill punditry to oust him
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Almost exactly 12 months ago, England's cricketers and management were awarded various gongs in the New Year Honours list. The main surprise of the list published yesterday is that they were not asked to give them back.

If that is a cheap shot it will be recognised by many members of the England team, MBEs and otherwise, on the grounds that it takes one to know one. Cheap shots and expensive bowling have littered England's performances in Australia like flies round a dunny and they are in imminent danger of losing the Ashes series 5-0.

The odds of 2-5 for Australia to make it a clean sweep merely demonstrate that bookmakers do have a generous streak. Almost everybody is thinking whitewash and not every member of the England party is a dissenter.

The nadir was reached in Melbourne last week when the tourists lost the Boxing Day Test in three days. It was as embarrassing as it was dispirited. The bowling, batting and coaching were all over the place. There was an empty feeling, exacerbated by the fact that the Barmy Army were still singing an hour after the horrible climax. And the band played on.

Former players, Ashes winners and non-Ashes winners alike, were queueing up either to twist the knife or put the boot in, sometimes both. This was quite as unsavoury as anything that was happening on the pitch, not least because there was an element of revelling in others' misfortune.

In the firing line, being lined up for ritual slaughter like ducks on a fairground stall, were coach Duncan Fletcher, chairman of selectors David Graveney and captain Andrew Flintoff. Hit two out of three and win a prize. It is unfashionable to take the view that change should be kept to a minimum and that there should be a period of sober reflection.

"I do think we have made mistakes but this is the wrong time to be pointing fingers," said Graveney. "What we have to do is sit down and review what has happened and the selection of the squad and how we select. This must cover everything from preparation onwards. We haven't done ourselves justice and we know that."

The most glaring error, if not the most telling, was the choice of Flintoff as captain. He has been diminished by it as player and man and his lack of form has been a key factor. He is one of the most quietly cheerful blokes you could meet but he has been all but broken by his experiences here.

Flatly denying that he has any regrets about taking the captaincy, he is still droning on after two months about the pride and character in the England dressing room. If only England had remembered to take them on to the MCG pitch.

Flintoff has been asked some hard questions in an attempt to persuade him to explain himself and the team. He has declined to do so, looking like a lost little boy in the bowels of the MCG. But after the interrogation all you really want to do is give him a huge hug and tell this man of enormously generous spirit that it will be all right one day soon. He deserves to recover from this.

"Selecting the captain of this tour was an incredibly hard decision," said Graveney. "It was discussed over hours and days and you can be assured that it was not taken lightly. It was very close." That would seem to come as near as a chairman of selectors can to admitting they got the big one wrong. But at the time Flintoff had many backers.

Graveney was preparing yesterday to embark for Sydney for end of the final Test. Had the England and Wales Cricket Board had their priorities right he should have been here more often than he has.

"Duncan and I have a World Cup squad to talk about, which I am keen to do as soon as we can," he said. But there is no doubt that he has brought his visit forward to give succour to the coach and to try to plan a future together.

The strained relationship between Graveney and Fletcher has probably not had a direct impact on the team but it cannot have helped in the selection of it. It is imperative, if both men are to continue, that there is a rapprochement. It will require hard words, a degree of plain talking not always evident and a change in the method of selection. And a captain.

For a couple of days after the Melbourne defeat Fletcher's position looked untenable. The solemn reaction to the publication of England's secret bowling plans was risible. The decision to accede in mid-match to Kevin Pietersen's request to bat at No 4 bespoke a man unsure of what was right any more. If part of a coach's job is to inspire his charges, he had patently failed. The clamour will grow again if and when England lose in Sydney.

Fletcher has been in charge for 95 Tests. The smart money is that he will go after the World Cup in May, which threatens to be another mess. But it would still be kow-towing to shrill punditry more than a rank admission of failure following years of success.

The coach conceded after Melbourne, albeit fairly ungraciously, that he has made mistakes on this tour. England have taken 48 out of a possible 80 Australian wickets so far and been bowled out for 157, 215 and 159 in three of their first innings. Crucially, Fletcher agreed that there had been selection errors. Selection needs checks and balances and with Fletcher and Flintoff as sole selectors on tour, these have been absent.

If Fletcher goes, then Graveney goes too, presumably. "I like the job very much indeed and have thoroughly enjoyed doing it," said Graveney, "but if the England and Wales Cricket Board decided it was time for a change I would accept that decision." The time is coming when the ECB should show some quiet firm-mindedness.

Fletcher has already offered to withdraw as a selector but his reasons were tied up with issues over the captaincy. That may be one option but a better one would be to add another member to the panel. Peter Moores has been the National Academy's director for a year and might be an appropriate candidate.

In considering change it is always wise also to think who might come in. Good cricket coaches are rare. Chairmen of selectors do not burst through the doors of the ECB at Lord's every week either.

But first, Sydney on Tuesday. It is vital to look like a proper cricket team again. If it is to be Flintoff's last act as captain, he must somehow rouse his men with the power of his own performance. It may suit him to know that Michael Vaughan's rehabilitation is bang on track. The man who is still official captain has been playing tennis on his injured knee, running, turning, twisting. He will play cricket in Bowral for MCC on 5 January.

It may well be 5-0 by this time next week and the Australian crowing will be heard in Trafalgar Square. These are wretched times and they may have to get worse before getting better.

Ashes to dust: How the series seriously unravelled, by Andrew Tong

England quickly feel the heat

The long-awaited tour starts badly. Andrew Flintoff's side lose to the Prime Minister's XI, almost an Australian 3rd XI, by 166 runs in a one-day match. Phil Jaques, groomed in county cricket, scores a century and then repeats the feat against the tourists playing for New South Wales two days later. Geraint Jones, dropped as wicketkeeper during the summer, returns at Chris Read's expense.

Down under the black cloud

Marcus Trescothick, the most experienced of England's batsmen, has a recurrence of the stress-related illness that caused him to return early from the tour of India last February. He breaks down in the middle of a tour match and flies straight home, despite having told the selectors he was "relaxed and ready" after taking the Champions Trophy off.

Well wide of the mark

To compound the selectorial muddle over the glovemen, England decide to pick Ashley Giles for the First Test in Brisbane ahead of fellow left-arm spinner Monty Panesar, the rising star of English cricket and a potential secret weapon; the Aussies had never faced him before. Giles had not played a first-class match for a year after hip surgery. Then, ludicrously, Stephen Harmison sends the first ball of the series straight into his captain's hands at second slip for a huge wide, and Australia end the first day on 346 for 3. They declare on 602 and England then crumple to 157 all out, with the 36-year-old Glenn McGrath, one of Australia's supposed "Dad's Army", claiming 6 for 50. England lose by 277 runs.

Adding insult to the injury

England's coach Duncan Fletcher has to play down talk of a comeback for Michael Vaughan from his knee injury, amid predictions that the man who led his country to Ashes glory in 2005 could return from his chronic knee complaint in time for the Boxing Day Test. Next day, Fletcher tempts fate by saying England "played Shane Warne very well. We were pretty confident the way we played him". And then Vaughan gets a duck playing for the ECB Academy XI.

Sweet adelaide turns sour

Hopes that McGrath might have to pull out of the Second Test with a heel injury are dashed. Paul Collingwood and Kevin Pietersen share a record stand of 310 and England declare on 551. They make early inroads but then Giles drops Ricky Ponting in the deep. "You've just dropped the fucking Ashes," yells a spectator. Ponting makes a century, Australia achieve parity, yet England should still stroll to a draw. But on the last day they freeze and collapse in an hour of madness as Warne wreaks his revenge on Fletcher. Australia romp to victory by six wickets. "I am a bit shocked, to be honest," says captain Flintoff.

Chaos in glove department

Fletcher goes on the defensive about overseas selection policy as newspapers claim it was Flintoff who did not want Panesar in the side. An England XI with five members of the Ashes squad are thrashed by a Chairman's XI with 43-year-old former keeper Alec Stewart top-scoring. England play both glovemen against Western Australia; Jones gets a first-ball duck; Read is unbeaten with fifty.

The panacea comes too late

Panesar is brought into the team for the Third Test and duly takes five wickets. Harmison finds some form and claims four as Australia, having elected to bat first, succumb for 224. But again the tourists fail to capitalise and are dismissed for 215. Giles flies home in the middle of the match upon hearing that his wife has a serious illness. The hosts pile on the agony with three centuries, Adam Gilchrist blazing one off just 57 balls. Chasing 557, England lose by 206 runs - and surrender the Ashes. Jones bags a pair of ducks, stumped as he stands as if spellbound. Sajid Mahmood, who has also been brought into the team, bowls only 10 overs in the second innings and says: "I began to question what I was doing on the pitch." England held the Ashes for 463 days, the shortest tenure ever - Australia had had them for 16 years.

The worst laid plans

After England finally replace Jones with Read, Flintoff elects to bat first in seamer-friendly conditions at the MCG and then sees his side crash to 159 all out. But it is the spin of Warne that does the damage as he picks up five cheap wickets. Australia are reduced to 84 for 5 in reply but Matthew Hayden and the recalled Andrew Symonds battle their way to a 279-run stand. England are bowled out for 161 second time around, despite Pietersen finally moving up the order from five to four - and lose by an innings and 99 runs. England's plans for dismissing each of the Australian batsmen are leaked to a radio station. Not that it matters.