England at the crossroads?

As far as test cricket was concerned, 2005 was the year of ‘Team England’. A settled side, both on and off the field, had carried all before them during the previous two years, and as each victory was filed firmly in the cabinet of history, Australia loomed larger and larger on the horizon, the immovable object placed in the way of the irresistible force – Michael Vaughan’s career-defining moment.

Vaughan almost fell into the England captaincy in 2003 after Nasser Hussain first resigned the one-day position and then that of the test side. His first task was to pour ointment over the mental scars inflicted by Graeme Smith’s double hundreds that marked the end of Hussain’s tenure and the beginning of his own.

It soon became obvious to all that Vaughan was that rarest of birds, a ‘lucky’ skipper, able to pull enough rabbits out of the hat to ensure that a draw was salvaged against a strong South Africa side as first James Kirtley and then Marcus Trescothick produced match-winning performances.

There was a certain swagger about England, and the West Indies felt the full weight of a four-pronged seam attack that was the integral part of a side pulling together for each other. England’s modus operandi was straightforward – keep pushing at the door until a chink of light was visible, then all charge through.

Vaughan’s captaincy was full of imagination, and whenever England seemed to be heading for trouble, an opportunist field placing or an astute bowling change would invariably pay dividends. One thing was lacking, though, that one decisive factor that sets a good captain apart from a great one – how would he lead the side in an Ashes series?

The answer was simply: very well indeed. Vaughan’s decisions had the happy knack of paying off, and everything Ricky Ponting touched seemed to go bad. Whether it was brilliance – or luck – on Vaughan’s part didn’t matter. The 2005 Ashes series belonged to England, and the captain’s favourable position in the pages of history was assured.

Michael Vaughan’s position at the helm as England sailed serenely from strength to strength seemed assured, but one by one key personnel were sidelined by injury. Vaughan’s chronic knee problem required surgery, then Simon Jones, Ashley Giles, Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison also fell by the wayside one by one.

The golden touch for Vaughan had all but disappeared during the 2005-6 winter tours, as first an emphatic defeat in Pakistan and then an early return home from India for further surgery raised more worries with another Ashes series and the Cricket World Cup around the corner.

Another setback whilst playing for Yorkshire at the end of June this year revealed that the problem is not one to be mended by orthroscopy. Far from it – the problem has now been diagnosed as a hole in the kneecap and the prognosis is not good – at least not for the immediate future.

England now have a very difficult decision to make with winter 2006-7 in mind. It’s all well and good hoping against hope that the skipper will make a full recovery in time, but the nettle has to grasped. Who is the man to lead the side after Vaughan?

As recently as November last year, the answer was both simple and obvious – Marcus Trescothick had led the test side twice and the ODI team ten times in Vaughan’s absence, and he deputised regularly whenever the captain had to leave the field of play. A domestic crisis however saw Trescothick flying home from India and out of the frame – at least for a while.

Andrew Flintoff, the man who had gone toe-to-toe with Shane Warne before winning the accolade of having his name inexorably linked with the 2005 Ashes, was the next to be thrust forward. Many would like Flintoff to be wrapped in tissue paper and stored carefully away, only to be wheeled out whenever the Australians are in town.

The fear is always there that Flintoff’s heart is too big for his own good, and he will always take too much on to his broad shoulders. He had surgery himself to repair a bone spur problem in his ankle before the 2005 Ashes series, and recently he has experienced pain in the same joint, causing him to be sidelined for a month. Drawn series against India and Sri Lanka possibly say more about England’s depleted squad than the success or otherwise of Freddie’s laid-back style.

There is a third and final candidate – Andrew Strauss. A winning start to his leadership career in Jamshedpur has been swiftly succeeded by an ignominious whitewash at home to Sri Lanka, but once again it is unfair to judge his captaincy credentials without making some reference to an attack that has seen boys striving to do a man’s job.

There is a world of difference however lying between the semi-automatic responses to One-Day International situations and the careful planning and inspired thinking required to lead a test side, so the choice of who fills Vaughan’s boots in my mind comes down to a choice between Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Flintoff.

My own choice for the job would be Trescothick, but that’s because I’m old enough to remember the hot seat coming close to destroying Ian Botham. When England’s last great all-rounder was freed from the shackles following on from his pair at Lord’s exactly a quarter of a century ago, the relief was palpable and Australia were put to the sword. I’m glad the decision is not going to be mine.

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