Why Flintoff captaincy is under question

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The Independent Online

Whether it be football or cricket, England's attacking options are in disarray. With the football World Cup only five weeks away the fitness of Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen will continue to grab the headlines, but the welfare of England's bowling attack is looking far from rosy following the news that Simon Jones will be out of action for at least six weeks.

Jones injured his left knee while playing for Glamorgan against Ireland on Monday, and a subsequent MRI scan revealed that the fast bowler has damaged cartilage within the joint. Surgery has not been ruled out, and the extended period of rest will see him miss England's three-Test and five one-dayer series against Sri Lanka which starts at Lord's on Thursday.

Jones is the fifth England player to withdraw from the first Test, joining Michael Vaughan, Stephen Harmison, Ashley Giles and James Anderson. However, before assembling a bowling attack that is capable of dismissing Sri Lanka twice the England selectors have to find a new captain.

Andrew Flintoff performed admirably when he stood in for Vaughan in India. Flintoff inspired the team to a remarkable 1-1 draw in the Test series and is expected to be named as captain when the England squad is announced tomorrow morning.

Many will feel that Flintoff is the automatic choice, but the decision of who should lead England against Sri Lanka is far from straightforward. Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, continues to air concerns over the workload placed on his most important player, and the first thing he, David Graveney and Geoff Miller need to assess is how much longer Vaughan is likely to be out.

If the triumvirate is confident Vaughan will be fit for the second Test at Edgbaston, which starts on 25 May, then Flintoff is the obvious choice. Yet should there be any doubt, the selectors need to think again. Flintoff needs protecting from himself. Fletcher is right to doubt whether he should be the long-term successor to Vaughan.

Fletcher, and England, want the 29-year-old to be playing at the highest level for another four or five years, but adding the captaincy to an ever-growing list of responsibilities could shorten his career by two or three years.

If England opt to replace Flintoff with Andrew Strauss or Marcus Trescothick, the transition needs to be handled sensitively. Of Strauss and Trescothick, Strauss is, to me, Vaughan's natural successor.

With the captaincy sorted the selectors can then turn their attention to the make-up of of the teams' bowling attack. The batting picks itself. Ian Bell will bat at three, Kevin Pietersen at four, Paul Collingwood at five and Flintoff at six. Alastair Cook and Owais Shah impressed in India, and one of the pair may be selected in the squad, but only a late injury will see either of them make the starting XI.

With Harmison, Jones, Giles and Anderson incapacitated England's bowling attack will have a green look to it on Thursday morning, but should the pitch have a similar tinge the hosts will still be too strong for Sri Lanka. Sajid Mahmood, Liam Plunkett and Monty Panesar are exciting young bowlers, and Jon Lewis' excellent early-season form ought to have secured his inclusion.

Mahmood and Plunkett are the favourites to play but it would be good to see the selectors play Panesar following his encouraging tour of India. Mahmood has played four one-dayers for England with mixed results. In Jamshedpur and Indore India's batsmen looked uncomfortable against his pace and bounce, and he has the potential to bowl like Harmison.

Being forced into playing two young quicks against Sri Lanka may be no bad thing. Jones is in danger of having a "between injuries" type of career and his fitness for this winter's Ashes cannot be guaranteed. Injury is an occupational hazard for fast bowlers and Mahmood and Plunkett would have a better chance of coping in Brisbane on 23 November with three or four Tests behind them.

Probable England squad (first Test v Sri Lanka, Lord's, 11 May): A Flintoff (c), M E Trescothick, A J Strauss, I Bell, K Pietersen, P Collingwood, G O Jones, L Plunkett, M J Hoggard, S Mahmood, M Panesar, O Shah, J Lewis.

England leaders in waiting

* ANDREW FLINTOFF

If England have a problem it inevitably leads to Flintoff's workload increasing. He will do anything that his team asks of him but he needs help. Flintoff wants the captaincy and it will take a brave man to deprive him of it. But it is something that needs to be done. He looked absolutely shattered after each of the three Tests in India, and I want to see him playing for England in five years' time.

* MARCUS TRESCOTHICK

Has been Michael Vaughan's unofficial vice-captain since he took over from Nasser Hussain in July 2003. Would have captained England in India had he not returned home before the first Test against India. His contradictory explanation of why he left the tour - personal reasons metamorphosed into a mystery virus - did him no favours and he is unlikely to captain England again.

* ANDREW STRAUSS

Stood in for Flintoff in India when the all-rounder took a well-deserved rest in the final three one-dayers. Strauss handled himself well in Jamshedpur and Indore in testing conditions. He is popular within the team and he guided England to their only win of the seven-match series. Captaincy experience is limited to two seasons with Middlesex but he is Vaughan's natural successor.

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