On the morning after England's extraordinary defeat in the Second Test, two concerned men had coffee together in the team's Adelaide hotel. It was impossible to tell if David Graveney and Duncan Fletcher were apportioning blame or hatching a master plan.
Like everybody else, the pair were still stunned by the events of the previous day, when the tourists had been beaten from a seemingly impregnable position. Since Graveney is chairman of selectors and Fletcher is England's coach, it might have been the most natural thing in the world to chew the fat, but instead it was surprising.
It is an open secret that they share a mutual mistrust, which is barely improved by the fact that each is aware the other knows the game deeply. This is partly because of the ridiculous way in which the England team are picked. Once the squad leave home, Graveney has almost no input. This was demonstrated by the embarrassment he had to suffer over several days at the Adelaide Oval when Rodney Marsh, the Australian former director of the England National Academy and Test selector, introduced him as "David Graveney, the chairman of selectors who does no selecting".
The relationship between Fletcher and Graveney is but one to come under scrutiny in the wreckage of this tour. The team are somehow hanging together still, but the thread is now extremely slender. Defeat is always debilitating, and some players have learnt things about others in the past fortnight, about their characters and behav-iour under duress, which have shocked them and which they would have preferred not to know.
Fletcher is too simply perceived to be a taciturn southern African who likes his own way and does not yield easily. But he has been profoundly hurt by the criticism he has received in the past fortnight, which he views not only as excessive but unfair. The attention this tour has attracted has made him more exposed to censure, and some former pros to whom he has not tugged his forelock sufficiently are taking pot shots.
When he spoke to reporters a few minutes before taking coffee with Graveney last Wednesday, he was anxious to unburden himself, albeit in code. At least three times he made it clear that he was not the sole selector on tour. Nor is he. Graveney is not involved away from home except in the most grudging of advisory capacities, and the team are picked - and this is enshrined in an official protocol - by the coach and the captain, in this case Fletcher and Andrew Flintoff.
As he restated the position, it was easy to infer what Fletcher was hinting. It was not he who had most influence in picking the team, as had been widely supposed, but Flintoff, who wanted neither Monty Panesar nor Chris Read. Fletcher acceded on the grounds that the captain must lead out the team he wants. The coach, however, said he stood by the selections.
Fletcher and Flintoff are not natural bedfellows. Until Flintoff became captain, they had little to do with each other. Flintoff, despite well-publicised drinking sprees, is an essentially bashful chap, the sort of bloke you want to have a pint with. He has made a couple of powerful, short speeches to his charges since being appointed as Ashes captain, but it has become clear that he was badly advised in pursuing the office so intently. He is not a natural leader, he does not bring the air of calmness that so marked Michael Vaughan's stewardship (few do). Some of the team simply do not see him as a captain. They are not divided, but nor are they together in the way that Vaughan's team were.
Flintoff's friendship with Stephen Harmison (left) has become the subject of much casual examination. If it has survived, it has changed forever. Part, if only part, of the reason for Flintoff's appointment was it was thought he would bring out the best in Harmison. That has been shown to be so much poppycock. Harmison has been deeply disappointing, and if he improved in Adelaide, he was unthreatening.
He and Flintoff have been heard exchanging views. That may be no more than what friends do, and they hung around together for several hours sharing beers with the Australians in the home changing room at Adelaide on Tuesday. But their alliance has unravelled on this tour, and no amount of mea culpas from Harmison will fully restore it. Flintoff has seen things in his pal that he had not seen before, and he has not liked them at all.
Harmison is another likeable fellow (virtually to a man this England team are amiable) but his colleagues are at their wits' end with him. Do not suppose for a moment that Matthew Hoggard, the workhorse of the side, is currently enamoured of his fellow fast bowler's modus operandi.
Fletcher and Harmison have never been the deepest admirers of each other's personalities, and the Fletcher-Flintoff-Harmison connection has definitely had an effect on the team. When Harmison belatedly withdrew from the match against South Australia immediately before the First Test, the entire squad felt let down. Fletcher was extremely angry, and it all led to the widest first ball in the history of Test cricket. Now everybody is wondering what to do about Stevie.
Then there are the fringe players. On England's recent successful tours the importance of the whole squad has been emphasised by Fletcher. But the omission of Panesar and Read before the First Test was always bound to risk alienation. You do not need to be fluent in body language to detect that neither is happy with his lot.
England are putting on a brave face considering the sensational nature of the Adelaide reversal, when 551 for 6 declared was insufficient to make them immune from defeat. But it is the way a tart slaps on lipstick, instinctively but without any real conviction that it is making the slightest difference. It is impossible to see how they can come back, if only because they would have to do what no England team have done before against Australia: win an Ashes series from 2-0 down.
England have been taken aback by Australia's desire. Of course, it was known that they wanted revenge, but in Ricky Ponting they have a captain who took the 2005 loss as a personal slight. He has not yet articulated his desperation to win, nay to crush England, in words, but it is there in every shot he plays.
After Adelaide, the home side will assume they can do anything. So they might. England, superficially, appear to have recovered well. But they have not had a formal inquest yet, and having regrouped after Brisbane, their difficulties are compounded. They cannot keep saying they will do better when they do better and still lose.
The arrival in Perth for the Third Test starting on Thursday has meant a reintroduction to Vaughan. His very public rehabilitation after knee surgery and his obvious wish to return has been a distraction. Unfortunately, it has also reinforced how much he is missed. He and Fletcher are hardly soul mates, but they reached an accommodation that worked for both.
England have made too many mistakes on this tour and in so doing opened the critical floodgates. To escape them now would be an unprecedented achievement, but the fear is that they are already submerged.
Achilles heels: Freddie, Monty and playing the blame game
1. Flintoff's Burden
The shot that the captain played in England's fateful collapse during the last day at Adelaide embodied his struggle. It was a flat-footed drive at a wide ball and it was every bit as bad as it looked. Andrew Flintoff has been saddled with too much responsibility, and that should have been recognised. Something had to give.
2. Bowling Dilemma
Playing Monty Panesar and leaving the batsmen to do the batting remains a risky strategy. But it is about much more than Monty. There is a case for drop-ping three bowlers - James Anderson, Stephen Harmison and Ashley Giles - but wholesale change does not work. England's plan should have been set in stone before they left. It was not.
3. Openers' Run Drought
The four opening partnerships between Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook have been 28, 29, 31 and 32 so far and neither opener has made a half-century. Marcus Trescothick is being missed, shot selection is poor, the pair are clearly rattled. Had Rob Key been called up, it would not necessarily have unlocked Australia but it would have provided a precious alternative.
4. Mental Strength
In this regard so far, England are seven-stone weaklings having sand kicked in their faces. They have simply failed to stand up to Australia on two vital days: the first at Brisbane, the last at Adelaide. It is difficult to see how they can redress the balance. Michael Vaughan's resolve has been badly missed.
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