Vaughan's men must call a halt to the sideshow

England must perform on the field rather than off it if they hope to retain Ashes, writes Angus Fraser
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The Independent Online

The England team are the most marketable commodity the sport in this country has to offer. It is they who bankroll the game. But Michael Vaughan's side and the England and Wales Cricket Board must realise that everyone's interest in them revolves around how they perform on, rather than off, the pitch.

Sport at the highest level is about getting all the one, two and three per centers right. By that I mean, the overwhelming majority of those competing at the top have the talent to perform, but it is those who deal best with issues around the periphery that become greats and, after the drawn Test series against Sri Lanka, it looks like the England team has lost some of their focus.

Last summer's Ashes was a wonderful spectacle. It highlighted all that is good in sport, and it turned England's cricketers into household names. As a result of the thrilling victory the team have been driven through central London on an open-top bus, awarded MBEs and earned a few bob.

Nobody, not even a bitter and twisted former England player like myself, would begrudge Vaughan's heroes the fame and fortune that has come their way. They deserved it, well most of it anyway. But the cricket England have played since that unforgettable day at The Oval has lacked the vigour and purpose it had while regaining the Ashes.

Injuries have played their part and the loss of Vaughan, the captain, has been a huge blow, but even so they have at times looked distracted. And unless they can rediscover the focus that was present when they defeated Australia, and concentrate solely on the cricket, they are unlikely to re-visit those dizzy heights again.

Andrew Flintoff received quite a bit of criticism about his off-field activities before the second Test against Sri Lanka, but he is not the only England player with a full diary. It is not just the private sponsorship deals of a player and the favours for mates that eat into their valuable time - time that could be spent resting a weary body - it is the ECB too. They have sponsors - who have paid a lot of money to be associated with an Ashes winning side - to keep happy. And in order to do so they need a player to show his face, and a leading player, an Ashes winner, if they can.

England's disappointing run of form - they have lost four and won only two of the last 10 Tests - is not solely down to the distractions of fame. There are, of course, cricketing issues too.

Monday's dismal display had a lot to do with the genius of Muttiah Muralitharan. But there were enough cricketing reasons for concern before Murali ripped the heart out of the batting. Nasser Hussain, the former England captain, believes that the bowlers were not ruthless enough in Sri Lanka's first innings at Trent Bridge. Hussain has a point but it would be wrong to blame the bowlers for England's demise.

In the game I was watching Flintoff and Liam Plunkett were aggressive, and they did bowl bouncers at Murali. The fact was that that was the wrong tactic. Against Murali, England's bowlers abandoned the game plan that had allowed them to take eight cheap Sri Lankan wickets. They did not bowl enough balls at the stumps.

The bowlers did all that could have been expected of them and with better catching at Lord's they would have won England the series. Matthew Hoggard and Flintoff shared 27 wickets, while Plunkett, Sajid Mahmood and Monty Panesar gave encouragement for the future. On four occasions they bowled Sri Lanka out for fewer than 250. It should have been enough to win a three-Test series.

England's current problems lie with their batting. Kevin Pietersen was magnificent, scoring almost twice as many runs as any of his team-mates. Alastair Cook continued to impress but the rest were disappointing. Marcus Trescothick scored a hundred at Lord's but failed to pass 35 in his next four innings, and Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood posted two half-centuries in 10 visits to the crease.

The most alarming form, though, was shown by Flintoff and Geraint Jones, who both failed to score 50 runs in the series. The captaincy may have distracted Flintoff but Jones' lack of runs must be putting his place in the team under extreme pressure.

* England have delayed announcing their one-day squad for this month's NatWest series until they know the extent of Flintoff's ankle injury.

* Shoaib Akhtar has been told he cannot bowl for three weeks due to an ankle injury. His selection for Pakistan's tour of England rests on the decision of a medical commission. Shoaib has not played since January.