Wanted: a man who can lead England

Strauss set to become fourth skipper in 10 matches as team miss their guiding hand
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Sometime this week, England will nominate Andrew Strauss as their captain for the Test series against Pakistan. He will be the fourth man to do the job in 10 matches since last November. The announcement will not be accompanied by national rejoicing.

That irritating background noise as the statement is read by the chairman of selectors, David Graveney, will be Australians guffawing. This will not represent a slight against Strauss - not for now, at least - but it will illustrate their view, which is probably not exclusive to their country, that England are there for the taking in the Ashes series this winter.

No Michael Vaughan to lead, no Andrew Flintoff, no Marcus Trescothick, the man who started the current run of leaders in Multan last November when Vaughan was first absent. It would be enough to make an Englishman laugh if it were not a crying shame.

This state of affairs has led to two unusual phenomena. The first is sympathy for the selectors, which emerges less often than England batsmen score one-day hundreds. The second is an askance look at the medical profession (actually perhaps not so rare). England have a team of experts and in their head, Dr Peter Gregory, a proven and respected judge of sports injuries. Yet somehow, seven months after Vaughan suffered it, there has been a failure to diagnose or at least to treat properly an injury to the most important player.

There have been swifter turnovers of England captains. In an especially comical 12 months covering a mere seven matches between June 1988 and June 1989 five different players had a turn in office. It may be mere coincidence that England held the Ashes then - and went on to lose them in the latter summer, not to regain them for 16 years.

Vaughan still haunts the dressing room six months after having last played an international. This is not surmise, it is there in the resolute refusal of Graveney and his men to look beyond this summer's campaign. Strictly speaking they are quite right. Touring teams are announced in September, but Graveney felt the need to make the point.

It is there, too, in the players. Strauss was asked the other day how difficult it was being seen as a temporary captain unable to impose his own thoughts and personality on the dressing room. "It's incredibly disappointing that he's not here," he said. "But anyone who rules Michael Vaughan out of making a return to the England side would be wrong. Knowing his character and how much he still wants to play it would be very wrong to view the side as moving on from Michael Vaughan, because it's simply not the case."

Not the case, and therefore definitely a problem. Hard-hearted though it sounds, England have to forget Vaughan. He probably knows that time has come. He told this reporter a month ago that a decision had to be made sooner rather than later.

Strauss has done little to commend himself for the role. He is there, and he knows it, virtually by default. Tomorrow, for the fourth time, Vaughan's right knee will be under the surgeon's knife or whatever instruments they use in these new-fangled but clearly imperfect days of arthroscopy. He will be out of the game for between four and six months.

Flintoff's heel is still in a state of tenderness, precluding him running. Although he has not been definitely ruled out of the First Test at Lord's starting on 13 July, the probability is that he will miss at least the first two matches in the series. Hence the need to appoint Strauss for the whole campaign, to lend some sort of cohesion to the dressing room.

It is not Strauss's fault, after he was summoned as captain for the one-day series against Sri Lanka, that England lost so abjectly. But observers are still entitled to wonder if players might have responded differently under somebody else. There is more to international captaincy than tactical acumen. It is about taking the players with you.

In getting the job now, Strauss is in prime position to secure it for the winter. If he can fashion a win against Pakistan he will be a shoo-in. Flintoff is undoubtedly the popular choice, which does not make him the right one. The selectors, particularly the coach, Duncan Fletcher, appear anxious to avoid burdening him with too much.

When Flintoff was captain in India it was a pleasure to watch him. Fred relished it and the players relished him. He was touched, and it was possible to understand how joyful Christmases must have been in the Flintoff household when young Andrew unwrapped his presents. But his very nature (as well as the weight of his other duties) tells against him. An England captain's job does not end when he leaves the field at the end of the day.

The selectors will not consider Trescothick. Perhaps they should. He is the senior professional and his peculiar breakdown in February, when his fragile mental state caused his departure from the Indian tour, was a symptom of the strains of modern sport. If he is over it - and he seems to be - then what is in the past should stay there.

Strauss was a sensation on his entry to Test cricket. He made a hundred on debut, five hundreds in his first 11 matches. He has not been so prolific lately, but as captain he has the chance to influence others. The concern is, however, that what was a waltz can become a requiem.