20 December 2006

Ashes 2006/2007: Things Must Change

Let me say up front and openly: I do not think personnel changes would have made a difference to which side won the urn this year. Nor do I think, realistically, that if Vaughan, Trescothick and Simon Jones had been fit, England would have magically been a different side and won the Ashes for a second series running. On the other hand, I do believe that the issues surrounding the England team on this tour have meant the team has not given true account of themselves, and that had some unnecessary changes not been made (to the playing staff) and had a different captain been chosen for this tour the matches would have been much more competitive. I'll go so far as to say that I think the series would have still been alive, if only technically, after Perth had things been right.

My list of concerns, to be tackled in order, is primarily:

  1. The wicketkeeper
  2. Andrew Flintoff's judgement as captain
  3. Duncan Fletcher's position as coach

1. The Wicketkeeper

Why are like Test ducks like local buses? You wait 51 innings for one, and then two come along at once.

Whatever else happens, or does not happen, in Geraint Jones' career he does, for the moment at least, hold one desirable batting record. He is the proud holder of the world record for number of innings before a first Test batting duck. He had completed 51 innings for England without ever being dismissed for 0 before the third Test and the WACA. Then in Perth he bagged a pair - the second of which was farcical; though it took both very quick thinking and sharp work in the field from Ponting, Jones' error to be run out was inexcusable for someone representing their country at the highest level. Actually it was inexcusable at any level. The pathetic showing from Jones embodies everything that was wrong with the England touring party for this series - a poor selection who should never have been in the side, picked because he was Fletcher's boy, and Freddie's mate, and because he played in 2005. Picked despite being woefully out of form all year and after being dropped for the last two matches of the summer (when his replacement came in and did well) and despite not being as good at the 'keeper's primary job as his rival.

Jones' selection was negative, backward looking and ill-conceived; his poor performances bear this out. Picked ostensibly because he is "the better batsman" of the two wicketkeepers in the squad, yet he had one score above 20 in 2006 (52 at Chandigarh in March) before he was dropped. He has made one more score above 20 in 6 innings since - 33 in the second innings at Brisbane. This is most certainly not form enough to pick a shoddy glove-man, who drops far too many catches, for his batting over a rival who is both better with the gloves and who has shown graft and turned himself into a respectable batsman over two years in the Test wilderness. Worse still, Read had possession of the shirt at the end of the English summer: in two matches and 3 innings he scored 38, 55 and 33. Read's return of 126 runs in 3 innings compares very favourably to 220 runs in 18 innings, which is what Geraint Jones has managed in 2006 (including the first three Ashes Tests; without them Jones has 157 runs in 12 innings), and his glove-work is much tidier - fewer chances spilled and fewer extras conceded, as befits a man considered by most to be the best 'keeper in the country. What's more, when the pressure has been on in this series and a good, or at least determined batting performance has been needed, Jones has bombed out - in Adelaide he both failed in England's first innings 551/6 declared and then flashed at a wide one for a soft dismissal in the second innings when all it needed was some discipline to stop the rot and the game could have been saved. A similarly sloppy dismissal in the first innings at Perth was followed by the worst dismissal he'll ever suffer at any level of cricket in the second to complete his pair. Jones just has not had fight to give - again symptomatic of England in this series.

Thus I think Geraint Jones needs to be dropped. He needs to be given clear instructions to find some batting form, improve his keeping, and develop a backbone. What's more he needs to know that he will not magically get into the side again regardless because his mates are picking the team: he should be dropped on merit and he should have to earn reselection on merit, or not at all. Chris Read should come in with the knowledge that barring injury he has the last two Ashes Tests, the World Cup, and the first home Series of the 2007 season (against the West Indies) for certain to re-establish himself. Ideally he will apply himself and make the job his, then he will get the India series too. Otherwise the best candidate - based on form, ability and availability - will take over for the whole India series, whether that is a reformed Geraint Jones or one of the other young 'keepers plying their trade in county cricket.

2. Flintoff's Captaincy

I have a great deal of respect for Flintoff as a player. With bat and ball he has shown himself to be a great servant for England in the past - albeit after a few dodgy years at the start of his career where he was out of shape and, frankly, not good enough. The inspirational side of Flintoff's play was the defining factor in the 2005 Ashes, where the bowler had Gilchrist in his pocket all series and the batsman made runs in both of England's wins.

Whilst his decision making on the field has not been all that bad in the current series there are a couple of things that point to Flintoff having somewhat questionable judgement as a captain. Leaving aside all the issues about him having too much of a workload (I think his poor form is more a result of his less than healthy ankle and a lack of match practice than it is down to him being captain) it is his decision making that is worth querying. Why, for example, in a side playing 5 frontline bowlers, does one of the attack get left to graze in the outfield, contributing only 10 of 112 overs, when the rest of the attack are not only failing, but are getting flayed around the place. And that is before you consider the extreme conditions - 40 degree heat is incredibly sapping for bowlers, going double for us poor poms who are just not used to those temperatures!

The inevitable rumour is that Flintoff under bowled Mahmood so much because he did not want him in the side. Regardless of the truth of this nugget, Mahmood should have been bowled more (or failing that, the part-timers Bell and Collingwood) in order to keep the others fresher. One of Flintoff's undeniable flaws, in certain situations, is his firm belief in himself and his eagerness to take the burden himself. Normally this shouldering of responsibility is a positive thing, but when he is captain this tend to result in him over bowling himself, regardless of his success or fitness. Given his ankle is clearly hurting him - his pace has been slower and his bowling less threatening since Brisbane - this overburdening of himself is a negative in both the immediate term and the longer term.

But where I see the biggest problem with Flintoff as captain is with his input into selection. When the team is overseas, so it is rumoured, the selection of the team is down to a combination of coach (Fletcher) and captain (Flintoff). There is also rumoured to be input from "senior players" somewhere along the line. After Adelaide there was all kind of talk that Fletcher had wanted Monty Panesar in the side, but that Flintoff had resisted and ended up getting his way (and Ashley Giles played; Giles has since left the tour to be with his ill wife). Flintoff is also friendly with both Geraint Jones and James Anderson whilst he seemed not to trust Sajid Mahmood at all. The impression all this gives is very much one of "my friends first and foremost"; loyalty is a wonderful quality in a friend, but it should not extend to picking your mate to play for your country when there are better options. Fletcher managed to give the impression in the aftermath of the Adelaide collapse that the reason the team had been unchanged after Brisbane was because Flintoff did not want changes made. This judgement astounds me - the team had been routed at the Gabba and even on paper never looked like getting a top class Australian side out twice. Add in Freddie's ankle trouble and that likelihood dropped further. A ring-rusty Anderson and Giles (who on top of rustiness was remodelling his action) were simply not going to threaten at all.

It is not abundantly clear that Freddie standing by his mates has been a problem, but that would be my interpretation of what we have seen and heard from the England camp on this tour. At least once Monty was selected at Perth he got overs (and just rewards in terms of wickets), but I can't help wondering how things might have looked different in this series had it been Strauss giving the captain's input into selection and not Flintoff. However all that said, one constant remains: Duncan Fletcher.

3. Fletcher's Position

Duncan Fletcher's position is apparently being looked at by the ECB, and by Fletcher himself, after the World Cup. One thing can be said for certain about Fletcher: despite all the flack he is taking now he is going to go down in history as a very successful coach of the England cricket team. And rightly so. However, all good things must come to an end, and Fletcher's reign has started a prominent downturn. The man who dragged England from the mire of the 1990s is now overseeing a mismanaged tour, an underperforming team and a one-day record that means only Bangladesh and Zimbabwe are realistically below England in the pecking order. He has also twice mishandled England's finest wicketkeeping technician; the first was touch and go, but the second has been disastrous.

Graham Gooch said this week that the situation on tour needs to be looked at, and the bizarre way selection has been handled on this tour really bears that out. Fletcher is just one of three England selectors for home Tests and when picking a tour party. However, he and the captain have sole input into team selection once on tour. It is this dichotomy that lead to Chris Read being inexplicably dumped for an out of form Jones in Brisbane. Jones is Fletcher's man, and the coach's stubborn streak will not let him back down for a second over that selection in 2004; despite plenty of evidence since then that Jones is not a mini Adam Gilchrist, Fletcher has stood firm with his man. Read's selection for the final two Tests against Pakistan owe everything to Graveny and Miller - the two selectors who have no say in picking touring teams. Consequently when their input was removed, their decision was overturned. The move was not just a middle finger raised to the other selectors (and to Read himself), it was a signal flare to the Australians that England were there for the taking. Giles' inclusion over Monty Panesar was the same. Yes, it seems likely that Flintoff had some influence here, but Fletcher carries the can in the end - at least for Brisbane.

Geoffrey Boycott - never one to mince his words - said in the run up to this series that Fletcher had "reached his sell-by date" as England coach, and that call looks spot on. There is no way Fletcher can improve on the heights of winning the Ashes in 2005 and the team spirit of the side is suffering more; I would be surprised if Read honestly feels he could give his all for a Fletcher-led side after how he has been treated. Fletcher's time in charge was characterised by the team progressing from one game to the next without making unforced or unnecessary changes, but on arrival in Australia the team picked showed 4 changes from that took the field against Pakistan at the Oval (or, more meaningfully in the third Test at Headingly). One of those was inevitable - Flintoff coming back when fit (and in this context replacing Trescothick, who was not). The other three were unforced: Mahmood replaced by Anderson, Panesar replaced by Giles and Read swapped for Jones. 3 Unforced changes to a team that had been performing well in the absence of their talisman. 3 unforced changes that failed to pay off in any way shape or form. 3 unforced changes that set the tone for the tour, and confirmed Fletcher's stubbornness and his old boys’ network. 3 unforced changes that confirm Boycott was right - Fletcher's time is up.

Replacing him mid series, or even before the World Cup in the New Year, would be impractical and a mistake. It would also be a mistake to have Duncan Fletcher still leading the team come May. I really hope that one of two things happen - that either the ECB act in light of the obvious mismanagement of this Ashes tour, or that Fletcher himself is big enough to accept he is no longer the positive force he was and stands aside.

Duncan: thank you for a good 7 years, but the time is right to make changes to the setup; I hope that you have enough good sense, even if you cannot or will not admit your stubbornness and mistakes, to step aside on your own rather than forcing the ECB's hand. You have been a great servant to England and deserve the dignity of going on your terms.

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