Toughest test of all: Freddie an easy fall guy, but hard part is putting it right

As post-mortem begins after Australia's clean sweep, Fletcher admits England may have got the captaincy wrong - but that was just the start of a flawed tour. By Stephen Brenkley
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The Independent Online

As the bitter reality of overwhelming defeat began to seep into the soul of English cricket yesterday two things happened. The usual things. An official and wide-ranging review was announced to examine the body - the lifeless body, it could be said - that has become known as Team England.

And the captain of the ill-starred venture which led to a 5-0 Ashes whitewash, Andrew Flintoff, was set up as the fall guy. With Michael Vaughan ready to be welcomed back like a returning saint, Flintoff was all but hung out to dry.

The English game has a long, ignoble history of navel-gazing dressed up as working parties, and it came as no surprise to seasoned observers that the Sydney defeat was deemed to require another bout. David Collier, the chief executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board, insisted that this one is less working party than action group, but that too is an old tune.

The five- or seven-man team, with an independent but high-powered chairman, should be in place by the end of the month. Ideally they will report on sel-ection and structure before the World Cup in March. No names have been formally released yet but it was being openly suggested that the former prime minister and cricket buff Sir John Major might be approached to be chairman. If that happened it would immediately give the review more clout.

Members will be drawn mostly from the ranks of former international players, and Michael Atherton, Nasser Hussain and Alec Stewart immediately leapt into the frame. Not, presumably, because they have a clue how to beat Australia, having never done so. The claims of Ian Botham, still the people's champion, may be overlooked given his scattergun criticism and his campaign to keep the Ashes urn, bequeathed to and owned by MCC, in Australia. Similarly Geoff Boycott may not be given the opportunity to test his belief that he knows everything - but you never know.

The brief is simple: to determine how Team England performances between 2003 and 2007 should be improved on so that England regain the Ashes in 2009 and win an ICC one-day global event between 2007 and 2011. In theory this is to be applauded, but the mind drifts back to 1999 and a paper called Raising The Standard. Its chief objective was to make England the best Test team in the world by 2007.

Well, 2007 has just dawned and events in Australia over the past six weeks have demonstrated that only one team can remotely lay claim to the distinction. Australia are top, daylight is next. Not for 86 years, since the 38-year-old captain, Johnny Douglas, was outsmarted by the 41- year-old Australian Warwick Armstrong, have England been beaten 5-0 in Australia. The conclusions of the 1921 working party could probably be dusted off.

If the review-cum-action group is a tried and trusted reaction to placate restless natives it is also normal to let the captain have it in the neck and anywhere else he is willing to expose. Flintoff made himself an easy target.

He was always a contentious choice as leader, and he became worse as the series wore on. Only when the awful result was confirmed did he look remotely capable of shouldering the responsibility. He talked some guff about his lads and their character, but that apart he could not have been more dignified. Some people muttered that he did not look as though he was hurting enough (inside or outside?), but Flintoff does not do existential angst as he does not do reasoned press conferences.

Duncan Fletcher, England's coach, distanced himself from the Flintoff era yesterday, possibly in preparation for the renewal of the Vaughan epoch. "The biggest fear when we appointed him as captain was there was too much of a workload on him, especially on a tour like this," said Fletcher. "I do believe it was a lot to ask of him, especially with a young and inexperienced side.

"He has found it difficult, trying to decide to protect the bowlers with defensive fields or attack a side with attacking batters. He has come up with a policy he believes is right. It's a very difficult job and he's very inexperienced. He had done only about six games and had never led a county side."

All of this was well enough known before Flintoff assumed the captaincy. He was badly advised in seeking it so assiduously, a fact that made the selectors' job harder. But wanting a job as desperately as Flintoff did was no reason to let him have it. He acted like a wannabe on a television reality show and he is better, much better, than that.

Not that England would have won if Vaughan had been fit (or if Andrew Strauss, who should have had the job, had been captain). Australia were too good and knew far too much and England failed hopelessly and haplessly to react. But it might not have been 5-0.

Collier said: "There is never any excuse through injuries but we particularly missed Michael. He was an inspirational character through that Ashes series of 2005. All of us have now seen his huge value to English cricket and what he did. I think he was much missed for all sorts of reasons." And thank you and good night, Fred.

These comments might not have had much virtue in their timing but they had the validity of accuracy. Yet Fletcher cannot escape opprobrium entirely. It is not simply that England lost to a great side, but that they so rarely competed. They were bowled out five times for under 162 and made above 300 only three times, twice in the second innings trying vainly to save the game. They took only 59 wickets, fewer than on any tour since 1958-59, when they managed 57.

It was a nonsense - which should not need a review group to rectify - that Fletcher and Flintoff were allowed sole sel-ection rights, especially when both were so eager to oppose the wishes of the selection panel at home. David Graveney is imperfect - his championing of Flintoff as captain was plain wrong - but he does not make decisions based on poor research. He spends more time watching cricket than the average teenager spends in front of a computer screen.

Fletcher was in defensive mode yesterday in analysing the series. He admitted there were areas that needed improving, he conceded selection mistakes, but only interrogation perfected at Guantanamo Bay might have persuaded him to reveal more. "We might have lost 5-0 but I feel we're in a better position than the last time we were here," he said. "These youngsters have shown at some level they can perform. They have got to realise they have to up their game a bit."

But that goes for Fletcher as well. He was too ready (in public at least) to back his entire staff, but if part of a coach's job is to get his charges to a peak for the big game some of them did not succeed. Similar strictures apply to Fletcher, who believes he still has the players' confidence. Maybe the review team will let us know, maybe England will win the Ashes again.

Time for a change? The issues england must address

The Captaincy

Nobody could have seen quite how misguided the choice of Andrew Flintoff was. But he was a tactical and public relations disaster. Still a lovely, genial man, he was let down by his team but he did not inspire them. Ricky Ponting, on the other hand, was a revelation. But then he did not need profound technical insight because he had the bowlers and no opposition.

The Selection

It can now be seen that England would have lost whoever played. But a whitewash was avoidable. Duncan Fletcher and Flintoff together got the selection badly muddled because No 8 became the most important batting position in the side. Never must so much power be invested in so few hands. In absentia, David Graveney's stock, like Michael Vaughan's, has risen.

The Preparation

Largely a red herring. Australia had played little more cricket than England before the series began. Glenn McGrath had not played a first-class match for 10 months but still took six wickets in the First Test. Players differ, however, and England's bowlers were plainly underdone. Time in the middle has to be found in future but, more importantly, preparation time has to be used properly. There was a distinct attitude of "It'll be all right on the night". It wasn't.

The Wicketkeeper

Like the poor, this conundrum will always be with us. But it is clear neither Geraint Jones nor Chris Read, despite the latter's lovely keeping, are the answer. Picking the untried 36-year-old Paul Nixon for the one-day squad is cause for deep concern.

THE ASHES 2006-07

First Test (Brisbane, 23-27 November): Australia 602-9 dec and 202-1 dec; England 157 and 370. Australia won by 277 runs.

Second Test (Adelaide, 1-5 December): England 551-6 dec and 129; Australia 513 and 168-4. Australia won by 6 wickets.

Third Test (Perth, 14-18 December): Australia 244 and 527-5 dec; England 215 and 350. Australia won by 206 runs.

Fourth Test (Melbourne, 26-28 December): England 159 and 161; Australia 419. Australia won by an innings and 99 runs.

Fifth Test (Sydney, 2-5 January): England 291 and 147; Australia 393 and 46-0. Australia won by 10 wickets.

Australia win series 5-0