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March 21, 2007

A Crucial Conundrum

Much has been talked of the antics of Flintoff and Co. after the New Zealand game and the disciplinary measures put in place by the management. Perhaps the most notable of these is the fact that Flintoff has been stripped of the vice-captaincy. This presents a number of issues: the effect it will have on Flintoff as a player, the effect it will have on the team and who to appoint as vice captain for the rest of the tournament.

Flintoff is a leader, even if not captain he is an inspirational figure within the team and it usually goes that when Fred is doing well, so are England. He loves playing for England and loved being captain. In the lead up to the announcement of the Ashes squad he made it very clear that he really desired the captaincy. It is entirely possible that being stripped of the vice captaincy in this way will have an effect on his game.

If England are to hope to progress in this tournament they will need their talisman firing on all cylinders so England hopes that Flintoff can put the politics to the back of his mind and focus on being one of the best all rounders in world cricket at the moment.

Flintoff is such a liked figure in the England camp that it is also entirely possible that a decision like this could cause fractions within the squad. Even if Flintoff is still 100% behind Vaughan (as I am sure he is), politics can be complicated and it could come about that players find themselves drawn more towards Flintoff than they do to Vaughan or the management.

So to the new vice captain: It is highly unlikely that we will never know who the new second in command is unless Vaughan himself actually does get injured. England have a habit of not appointing official vice captains and the Ashes squad announcement was the first occasion in quite a long time that a captain and vice captain were announced.

It is that vice captaincy choice which presents one of the significant problems here. While in Australia, Flintoff was appointed captain and Andrew Strauss his deputy and although Vaughan returned for the CB series, the matches he did miss due to a ham string injury were captained by Strauss while Flintoff was off the field which indicates that Strauss was an unofficial deputy to Flintoff in the one dayers too.

Vaughan tripped in a pothole yesterday while training and hurt his right knee, the knee which had given him trouble over the past year and kept him out of the Ashes this winter. Although the England management have assured us that he will be fit to play against Kenya, they have told us such things before and have been proved wrong on the day.

Strauss has been left out of the starting team for the four matches England have played so far in the Caribbean (the two warm up matches and the first two matches of the main tournament). It would therefore be very difficult for the England management to make Strauss captain should Vaughan fail to pass fit for the match against Kenya because they would be putting someone in a position of seniority who was not even in the main team the match before.

With Vaughan, Flintoff and Strauss the only names to have been bandied about in captaincy conversations recently it would mean that the job would have to go to someone who is not a natural choice.

A sensible choice would be to give the position to Paul Collingwood. The Durham all rounder is a senior member of the side, he was on panel of selectors as an advisor during the Ashes with a small group of senior squad members, he is one of England’s most reliable ODI batsmen, an excellent and agile fielder and a more than handy bowler.

It is through watching his batting and bowling that it becomes obvious that he is in touch with the situation of the game: as a batsman he is aware of when the need to up the tempo arises or when it will suffice to just knock about the singles and twos; as a bowler he is able to assess the batsmen he is bowling to and is constantly thinking about where to bowl and when to vary his bowling.

It is also important for the captain of the side to set the example in the field, something which no one would deny that Collingwood would be able to do. He has long been accepted as one of the best fielders in England, having substituted for many years in Test matches long before he was an established member of the Test side.

An option for looking to the future could be Ian Bell. In my mind, Bell is the England captain for the next generation. He is a classy batsman who is now coming into his own and growing in confidence and has hopefully established his place in the side after some good knocks.

Again, Bell is a good fielder and one of the best catchers in the England side and his bowling is not to be sniffed at although he seldom gets a chance to show it with Collingwood, Dalrymple and Pietersen usually being the fifth, sixth and seventh choice bowlers.

Giving Bell the captaincy would show a vote of confidence from the England hierarchy which could in turn help his form as a batsman. He has admitted himself that he did not feel like he fully deserved his place during the 2005 Ashes and he had a poor series as a result but he has shown extra self belief of late and has improved with the bat as a result.

A decision to give the captaincy to Bell could of course have the adverse affect, it is quite possible that his inclusion for the 2005 Test series was a season too soon and it could be that if introduced to the captaincy at too early an opportunity he could react to it as a captain as he did in 2005 with the bat.

Perhaps the only other senior established figure in the team is Kevin Pietersen. Although almost laughable at first thought, there are few reasons not to give Pietersen the captaincy. He is by far the best batsman in the side and would hopefully be able to lead from the front with the bat. As a fielder he is again one of the best in the side, despite his poor form in the field in his debut test series in 2005 where he didn’t hang on to a single chance and even his bowling is tidy. In fact, while playing in South Africa in the early part of his career he wasn’t even considered as a batsman and played for Natal as a bowler and batted low down the order.

I am sure that Pietersen would want the job, he craves attention and the captaincy would certainly be a perfect opportunity to gain some of the press coverage and some of the best captains to have ever graced the game have been those who had a real desire to lead their nation.

Does Pietersen hold the responsibility for such an important job? Perhaps one of his flaws as a cricketer is that he can at times appear too arrogant, which could be a downfall of his as a captain. After his successes in the Ashes of 2005 and before the tour of Pakistan in November and December 2005, he expressed that he was keen to give more to the team as a bowler, a feeling which was quickly dampened by the management.

It is entirely possible that given the captaincy he could over bowl himself or be too much of an attacking captain. There are always these risks of course; no one can ever know what type of captain a player will be until they are actually given the opportunity to do the job.

It would be a difficult decision for the management, should they be in a position where they have to make it, so much so that I can’t put my finger on a preference. I would be happy to see Bell, Collingwood or Pietersen leading England out on Saturday (or whenever it may be necessary) as each have their merits. Bell is the choice for the future, Collingwood would be the safe option and giving the job to Pietersen would show that England mean business and would take the game to the opposition.

But of course I suppose it’s all irrelevant isn’t it? Because after all, as the England management have reassured us: Vaughan will be fit to play on Saturday. And the England management have never led us astray over a key player’s fitness before have they?



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