Vaughan set to take over captaincy
Duncan Fletcher has given the strongest hint yet that Andrew Flintoff's reign as England captain is about to come to an end. Speaking to the press on the morning after Australia had wrapped up their 5-0 whitewash, Fletcher admitted that Flintoff's workload as captain, allrounder and general team talisman had all been too much. With Michael Vaughan waiting in the wings after completing his rehabilitation from knee surgery, the change of leadership is expected to be announced tomorrow morning.
"That was one of the biggest fears we had when we appointed [Flintoff] as captain," said Fletcher. "We feared that the workload was too great on a tour like this to Australia. I do believe it is a lot to ask of him, particularly with an inexperienced side where you've got to do a lot of captaining, and you don't get a lot of help from the young guys."
Fletcher pointed out the contrast between the men at Flintoff's disposal, and the back-up that Ricky Ponting has had in this series, with the likes of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Adam Gilchrist all on hand to provide their support and opinions. "Ponting's got a lot of experienced players around him, so it is a tough job [to compete]," he added. "Fred's very inexperienced as well. He's only captained in six games before here, and he's not captained a county side either, so that's a lot on his shoulders.
"He's got a lot of young bowlers out there," added Fletcher, after Flintoff had come in for criticism for the manner in which he had handled the likes of Sajid Mahmood, who hardly featured for large periods of his three Tests, and Monty Panesar, whose effectiveness was stymied by the defensive fields he was given. "Does he seek to protect them, or does he attack a side that's got a lot of attacking batters? He's come up with a policy that he believes was right."
Flintoff himself admitted yesterday that he was unsure whether he had played his last Test as captain. "I enjoyed doing it and if I had the chance again of doing it, I'd jump at it," he said. "As captain, I think I've learned a lot throughout this trip. When you're making decisions out in the middle, you go with your gut feelings and do what you feel is right at the time and I stick by that."
But Vaughan, whose presence on this tour has also been criticised as a distraction, is all set to make his return to the team. Yesterday, playing for an MCC side in Bowral, he scored 27 but more importantly bowled six overs of offspin, a clear indication that he trusts his knee to withstand the rigours of international cricket. "I feel ready," he said earlier this week. "Mentally I am very fresh."
Fletcher himself insists that nothing has changed regarding his own position as coach. "I will review my position after the World Cup," he reiterated, "but I really believe I've got the confidence and backing of the players, and that's very, very important." David Collier, the chief executive of the ECB, is also in Australia to prepare a major review of England's disastrous Ashes campaign, and Fletcher said it was up to the ECB hierarchy to say whether he still had their support as well.
As for disastrous tours of Australia, Fletcher has at least been here before. In 2002-03, England were thumped 4-1 in a series that, if anything, was even more one-sided. On that occasion, England's consolation win at Sydney came against a side missing both McGrath and Warne, and there had been no major retirements to spur the Australians on to victory.
"I think we're in a better position having lost 5-0 than last time when we lost 4-1," said Fletcher. "This is a group of young cricketers who've performed at a high level in difficult conditions, and on the subcontinent as well. We just need to play as a unit for longer and get the experience required to beat a side of this calibre.
"When we were here last, we were with players who had been beaten on a regular basis by Australia. This time we put up some very, very good performances, and there were numerous occasions when we had Australia in trouble. But we couldn't nail them and continue with that pressure. Even though they've lost 5-0, in those Tests they were very, very competitive.
"All the players have tried their hardest, if they hadn't I'd have felt let down. No team has found it easy to beat Australia in Australia. In fact, no-one's beaten them. They put a lot of pressure on us from the word go, so credit to the Australians. They are a quality side, and though they had their downs last year with the same side, they've come back and beaten us convincingly."
As for the future of this England team, Fletcher remained optimistic. "This young group will learn from the experience, and we can take a lot of benefits and strengths for the next series," he said. "We took time to build a young side last time that went through to win the Ashes, and you don't just do that overnight. It takes time. You're going to have your ups and downs but now these guys have got to up their game in certain areas and make sure they are ready for 2009.
"I wish cricket was a simple game, and you could get hold of a guy, put him in the nets, and send him out as a world-class guy. But that doesn't happen overnight. It takes a lot more than ten to 15 Tests to become an accomplished Test player, so we can go away with areas to work on."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo