Defiant Fletcher blames batsmen
Duncan Fletcher was in a defiant mood on the morning after England's disastrous defeat in the second Test at Adelaide, insisting that England's batsmen were to blame for the collapse of their Ashes prospects, and not the defensive team selection that had allowed Australia to dictate terms in the closing stages of the game.
"We lost that match in that hour, hour-and-a-half, yesterday morning," Fletcher told reporters at the team hotel in Adelaide, prior to their departure for Perth. "We put ourselves under a little pressure. The first two wickets were unnecessary, and when KP [Kevin Pietersen] got out, a large part of our batting had gone. If we had batted well there and continued in a real positive vein, who knows what could have happened."
Positivity has not been a watchword of England's team make-up in this series, however, and Fletcher's position as coach is under greater scrutiny than ever before. Several former captains have pointed the finger at the team's selection, including his old ally Nasser Hussain. "He will come under the immense pressure in the next week or so," Hussain told The Evening Standard. "His selections have let him down and let England down in [Ashley] Giles and [Geraint] Jones."
Part of Fletcher's success as a coach in his seven-year tenure has been his ability to absorb the flak on the occasions when things have gone wrong, but on this occasion, he chose to share the buck with his beleaguered captain, Andrew Flintoff, who - to judge from his dodgy ankle, dreadful dismissal and thousand-yard post-match stare - has got more than enough issues to worry about.
"I'm not the sole selector on tour," Fletcher reiterated on at least four occasions. "I'm not the one who says: 'right, this is what we'll go in with'. Out here it's like it's been for the last four or five years, which have been pretty successful. The captain and coach finalise the side for each Test match, and do I stand by the selections? Of course we stand by those selections. I've got to stand by those selections as part of the selection committee.
"Andrew and I have the final say," he confirmed, adding that the mysterious selection committee didn't include David Graveney or any of the home selectors, but instead consisted of a panel of senior players - Andrew Strauss, Paul Collingwood and Jones - who are consulted prior to each Test. Given that Jones, who does not currently have a central contract, is one of the most contentious choices on this tour already, it is a further sign that Shane Warne was spot on in his pre-series assessment, when he claimed that Fletcher has his "favourites".
And those favourites certainly do not include Monty Panesar, whose continued omission from the Test team has created waves of indignation from England's disgruntled fans. "I'm sure there's a lot of anger," Fletcher said, "but I could have taken the easy option with the other players on the selection committee. We've got to sit down and say what do we think is the best side, with all the knowledge we've got around, within that group of people. What is the best side to win the Test match?"
Fletcher also defended James Anderson's retention in the side, despite his current series figures of 2 for 303. "Andrew Flintoff was talking about how he wanted to go back to the seamers on a skiddy wicket," Fletcher said. "When we played South Australia, Jimmy was the best bowler there. He was more impressive than the spinner and that's why we picked him for Brisbane ahead of [Sajid] Mahmood. When you bowled on the main square, not the rough, it didn't turn. Skiddy bowlers was the way to go. We had to pick him for Brisbane, because he was the most economical at that stage, and he's bowled well here already."
The folly of entering such a marquee series with just one fully match-fit bowler in Matthew Hoggard was exposed by England's inability to polish off Australia's tail on the fourth day, but Fletcher turned that situation around to highlight once again the importance of a No. 8 who can score Test runs. "At 376 for 6 Australia were pretty vulnerable, but Warne's hundred [partnership] put the pressure back on us," he said.
There will inevitably be calls for his resignation if England cannot turn their fortunes around at Perth, starting next Thursday, but Fletcher insisted he still had the backing of his team. "I've never had long-term views," he said. "I'll sit and have a look at it and see if I feel comfortable with myself, that's the most important thing. If you don't feel comfortable with yourself, you've got a problem. If you feel comfortable you can contribute, that's the most important thing.
And despite the massive odds that are stacked against England, Fletcher still believed his team could emulate Don Bradman's men in 1936-37 and become only the second side in Ashes history to come back from 2-0 down. "Anytime we play against Australia it's a huge challenge," he said. "It was a huge challenge last year, and it's a huge challenge this winter. But we play sport for that. We might as well not pitch up if we didn't believe we could come back."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo