Fletcher forced to ditch the multitaskers
Duncan Fletcher has never courted popularity in his six years at the helm of English cricket. Instead he has preferred to operate in his own authoritarian manner, cultivating absolute respect from within the "bubble" of the England dressing-room with a fierce loyalty to his chosen men, and earning admiration from those outside its confines, who can but judge by his undeniably impressive results.
Now, however, here's a challenge to Fletcher's rigid orthodoxy. In the space of two days two of his most trusted lieutenants, Geraint Jones and Ashley Giles, have been served grim reminders of the precariousness of their positions. Giles, struggling with his long-term hip injury, looked on helplessly while Monty Panesar produced one of the most brilliant performances by an English spinner since the days of Derek Underwood. And now Jones also finds himself on the outside looking in, following the recall of the purist's favourite wicketkeeper, Chris Read.
No four characters better epitomise Fletcher's coaching philosophy than these men. Jones and Giles are two functional cricketers whose competence in two of the three key disciplines of the game outweighed their lack of brilliance in either. In the Ashes last summer, at Nos. 7 and 8 respectively, they provided key runs at key moments - Jones at Trent Bridge, Giles at The Oval - and in between whiles performed sufficiently well in their primary roles.
Read and Panesar, on the other hand, are single-issue geniuses. They may be streets ahead of their contemporaries with the gloves and ball respectively, but in Fletcher's eyes that makes them one-trick ponies and, as such, liabilities. His ruthless axing of Read in the Caribbean two years ago was the hardest stance he has had to take in his time as coach, and the ripple of ill-feeling that it caused was a key reason why Read's chief supporter, the academy coach, Rod Marsh, felt the need to seek new challenges.
And now Panesar also knows what it is like to fall short of his coach's expectations, though quite what he has done to deserve such faint praise is beyond the ken of most seasoned England-watchers. "Monty bowled very well, no doubt about it," said Fletcher, which implied that he did have a doubt about it. "But we have to produce 11 players who can produce two of the departments efficiently, whoever is playing for England."
For a man whose public utterances can only ever be read between the lines, this was a damning assessment indeed. But, not to be outdone, David Graveney, England's chairman of selectors, was equally forthright about the reasons for Jones's omission from this morning's squad. "We have taken this decision regardless of the injury to Geraint's finger," he said. "The key factor for the selectors was his form with the bat." Make of that what you will, but Fletcher would surely have preferred to use the injury as an excuse for the tactical switch. It doesn't take a conspiracy theorist to infer a conflict of interests taking place within the ECB's corridors of power.
There's no denying that Fletcher's autocratic streak has been to England's benefit for the past six years. His entire tenure has been coloured by the horrific situation he inherited at the end of the 1999 season, when England's tail comprised Ronnie Irani at No. 7, followed by Andrew Caddick, Alan Mullally, Phil Tufnell and Ed Giddins.
He vowed never again, and rightly so, but on the flip side, his obsession with multitaskers has led to some undeniable howlers, such as persisting with a hopelessly out-of-form Craig White at No. 7 during the last Ashes tour. Now, having won the Ashes with as tightly knitted a team as you'll ever care to witness, he seems reluctant to embrace the need for a new outlook.
The retention of Michael Vaughan as captain, despite Vaughan's own fears that he'll never play again, led to a horlicks of a captaincy conundrum that, ironically, was only alleviated by the need for further surgery on Andrew Flintoff's ankle. Relieved of the unpalatable tag of "the stand-in's stand-in", Andrew Strauss led the side with a verve and deftness of touch that has been lacking ever since Vaughan last limped off the field.
Strauss has hinted that there is life after the Ashes. It's time Fletcher embraced the possibilities that have been forced on him by circumstance. It's true, Panesar may not always find a pitch so conducive to his matchless skills, but as Shane Warne would point out, a spinner armed with a world-class keeper is another weapon entirely. Read has earned his second chance. It's time that he and Panesar were invited to join Fletcher's bubble. Assuming, of course, that it hasn't already burst.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo