England's captaincy conundrum June 30, 2006

Freddie is the man to inspire England

John Stern ponders who will be asked to step into Michael Vaughan's shoes and lead England this summer ... and then into the Ashes

Andrew Strauss gets a lift from Andrew Flintoff - the two of them are the only serious candidates to replace the sidelined Michael Vaughan © Getty Images
Graham Taylor once described managing the England football team as "an impossible job". There are times (like now) when captaining the England cricket team is in the same bracket of poisoned chalices.

England have had three captains since the 2005 Ashes. All of them were keeping the seat warm for Michael Vaughan, or so they thought. But now we know. There can be no more talk of stand-ins, first second or third choice. England need a new captain, officially appointed with the asterisk next to his name in ink rather than pencil.

But never mind impossible jobs, this is an impossible decision. Because Andrew Flintoff, the incumbent Test captain, will not be fit for the first Test against Pakistan which starts in less than a fortnight. According to the Sun newspaper, he will miss the first two Tests.

So, in a sense, there's no decision to make. It has to be Andrew Strauss, beleaguered captain of the hapless one-day side. Marcus Trescothick, the first of Vaughan's stand-ins, is no longer a serious contender after his unscheduled departure from the tour of India.

But in reality the issue is a lot more complicated than that. Unless Strauss is the man to lead a Vaughan-free team to the Ashes then England will be condemned to another period of captaincy limbo.

There¹s no denying that Strauss has been handed a hospital pass with the captaincy so far. But even so he has yet to reveal much evidence of great tactical acumen or inspirational leadership qualities. Flintoff has certainly displayed the latter if not so much of the former. One imagines that he will have learned from the ludicrous over-bowling of himself in the first Test against Sri Lanka.

There are clear dangers to Flintoff being captain long-term. He is pivotal to the team and a loss of form derived from the burden of leadership would be disastrous. But he is a different character to Ian Botham, whose brief tenure as captain in 1980 and 1981 is a cautionary tale. He is less of a maverick than Botham and much more of a team man. He has had to perform a number of different roles as a bowler and to a lesser extent as a batsman. He has had to work damned hard to get to the top. Botham exploded on to the scene with immediate success. The struggles came later.

Flintoff has the sort of charisma and character to lead a side in Australia. It is harsh to judge Strauss in these circumstances but his qualities are less obvious. The one slight worry with Flintoff is whether he is ruthless enough. It is a dreadfully sad thing to ask, but is he too nice?

This is where Paul Collingwood comes in. Collingwood, you will remember, was the first man on the scene when Simon Jones and Matthew Hayden went toe-to-toe during the Edgbaston one-dayer before the Ashes. You couldn't wish to meet a nicer chap than Collingwood, as is the case with Flintoff. But Collingwood has an abrasiveness to him on the field that will come in very handy in Australia. England don't go in for official vice-captains but now that Collingwood, in Vaughan's absence, is almost guaranteed a place, he has an important role to play.

England really don't need any more stand-in captains and it would be mighty tough on Strauss if England are winning the series against Pakistan when Flintoff comes back. But, in this far from ideal world, a firing Fred is the man to rekindle the Ashes.

John Stern is editor of The Wisden Cricketer