Time running out as England search for Plan F - Freddie

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The Independent Online

As of today, England have held the Ashes for one year and 95 days. The reasons for hoping that the number of days (forget the years) might reach a century seemed yesterday to be diminishing faster than the prospects of any England batsman other than Paul Collingwood or Kevin Pietersen doing likewise.

A year and 95 days ago, of course, Andrew Flintoff was a national hero and a year and 94 days ago a national hero who was not only a colossus in every cricketing department but also a champion drinker. He rose a notch or two higher. Those were the salad days. As of yesterday, if not before, he must have felt like turning to the bottle again for entirely different reasons.

Partly on the strength of his monumental deeds, partly because of injury, Fred was appointed to lead England in their defence of the Ashes. Bowler, batsman, captain: it was to be his crowning glory. There were those who said it would be all too much but they were frowned upon, horrid republicans at a coronation.

He has meant well, some of his field placings have been innovative and, if some of them have occasionally been two overs behind the play, then no matter, he has been thinking and reacting. And if some of his bowling changes have been made because he himself seems to be able to bowl no more than five overs in succession, then swift bowling changes have frequently worked for the England of the past three years.

But for all the bright moments, for all the fact that Flintoff's squad appear to have stayed vaguely united under tremendous duress, the suspicion cannot be wholly discounted that he is presiding over a team that do not always know their apex from their elbow.

As much was all but said by Pietersen yesterday after England had fallen to 215 all out and he, as the sole surviving proper batsman, had tried to marshal the tail in various ways. First he had taken easy singles, then he had spurned them, then he decided to go for broke with big shots. It earned him 70 runs and he was out trying to hit over long off.

"On some days we play fantastic cricket, but on others we make life difficult for ourselves," Pietersen said. "We never do it the easy way. I tried plan A, plan B, plan C and then plan D, E and G, they all came out." All but plan F then, it would seem, which, Sod's Law being what it is, you can bet your bottom dollar was the one that would have been foolproof.

Messages were sent out from the dressing room and it seems that Pietersen was seeking clarification about when to attack and when to defend. He refused to elaborate. "I want to keep it in the dressing room," he said. Which indicated that there was some debate. Whoever supplied the instructions it was hardly good for Flintoff's captaincy.

Cricketers like Fred cannot be judged on figures. They are forces of nature, whose deeds at given moments, the moments that matter, make them great. But the fact is that in the 2005 Ashes Flintoff scored 402 runs at an average of 40.20 and took 24 wickets at 27.29. It was extraordinary stuff.

At the end of the second day of the third Test of the rematch, almost halfway through the series but with time rapidly running out to turn things round, he had scored 69 runs in four completed innings at an average of 17.25 and taken seven wickets, four in the first innings of the first Test, at 42.14. However you look at it those averages are the wrong way round.

His batting yesterday was hapless and he knew it. He stayed around for 45 minutes but was never remotely at ease. At least five of the 31 balls he faced might have dismissed him. His shot selection to fast balls outside off-stump was almost funny because it was so misplaced. He was attempting to hit a cricket ball and he might as well have been trying to lasso the moon.

Flintoff then shared the new ball. The bounce he extracted did not lead to wickets. He claimed before the match that the left ankle which was repaired (again) in the summer was fine. But it is not fine. It is restricting him because he has to think when he is bowling today how many overs he will be able to bowl tomorrow and tomorrow; how many overs he can bowl in the next match. Such facts can only affect his decision making.

Pietersen would not comment on such matters or on others not getting runs. "It's a team game," he said. You wondered for how long it might be Fred's team and a year and 95 days did not come close.

Ball of the Day

Matthew Hoggard continues to strike with the new ball and the delivery that dismissed Justin Langer was a beauty. Hoggard swung the first ball of Australia's second innings in to Langer and hit middle and leg stumps.

Shot of the Day

England have overlooked Monty Panesar because of his lack of ability with the bat, but the left-hander struck a gorgeous on-drive off Stuart Clark yesterday. It will not be long before he is pushed up the order.

Moment of the Day

Ricky Ponting was positioning Stuart Clark on the fine-leg boundary when he shuffled back, tripped over the rope and fell flat on his backside. Clark saw the funny side of it. He had to, with several thousand fans laughing behind him.

Debate of the Day

Should technology be used to help umpires? Andrew Strauss received another rough decision when he was given out caught behind. If every appeal had to go to the third umpire, the game would come to a standstill.