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Flintoff follows where Vaughan led

india Updated: Oct 09, 2006 14:19 IST
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Concealing steel under the silk, Michael Vaughan startled the Australians with his tough, pragmatic captaincy in last year's Ashes series.

The sumptuous stroke play was still on display, albeit more fitfully than in recent series. This time, though, Vaughan's singular achievement was to imbue England with the self-belief to take the attack to Australia.

"He wanted us to enjoy playing cricket and have no fear of failing," said his successor Andrew Flintoff.

Despite optimistic noises this week from Vaughan the knee operation he required this year looks certain to keep him out of the Ashes return series starting in Brisbane on November 23.

In his wake Flintoff, whose mighty all-round contribution tipped the balance in England's favour last year, leads his country in the busiest winter of his life.

Flintoff hopes to bowl in the Champions Trophy starting in India tomorrow after the ankle operation which ended his season prematurely.

He will be required to bowl and bat at his best if England are to retain the Ashes. Then he will need to lead from the front again if his team are to belie their indifferent one-day form at next year's World Cup in the Caribbean.

Juggling the varied demands of batting, bowling and slip catching, coupled with the on and off-field pressures of captaining, do not seem to burden Flintoff unduly.

"To be honest, I didn't have a great deal to do as captain," Flintoff remarked after his experiences in India this year.

"I moved a fielder from here to there every so often, gave a team talk and that's about it."

Enjoyable Challenge

In other people the introductory "to be honest", a catch phrase which peppers Flintoff's conversation, is not necessarily a prelude to a burst of fearless candour.

But in Flintoff's case, there is no reason to doubt that captaining England is a hugely enjoyable challenge to be taken in his large stride.

His elevation to the England captaincy in place of the injured Vaughan brought an epic win over India in Mumbai, with Flintoff proving unstoppable with bat and ball.

Then followed the frustration of a drawn series against Sri Lanka followed by the ankle injury which eventually required an operation and wiped out half his English season.

The plus side has been a rigorous rehabilitation programme, endured rather than enjoyed, and a player in the prime of his life who has never looked fitter.

"Going into a test series, my ankle and my body are as fit as they have been for, probably, ever," he said.

The debate over bowler-captains and the possibility of overload re-emerged after the drawn first test against Sri Lanka this year in which he bowled more than 70 overs.

It is not a debate that has particularly bothered the man himself.

"My family were obviously delighted about the captaincy, but everyone else seemed very concerned about the effect it might have on my game," he wrote in his recently released Freddie My Way.

"The rest of the world didn't see it the same way and were talking quite negatively, saying it was bound to be too much of a strain on me, but I couldn't wait to start.

"As an all-rounder I'm in the game all the time anyway with my batting and bowling and standing at slip so I couldn't see how captaincy could be that much more of a burden. I was hoping it might bring out the best in me."

Successful All-rounders

The cautionary tale of Ian Botham, whose powers were magically restored when he was relieved of the captaincy during the 1981 series against Australia, is cited by those who fear Flintoff is taking on too much.

An equally valid comparison could be made with Botham's contemporary Imran Khan, an even greater all-rounder.

The responsibilities of captaincy transformed Imran's batting. He in turn molded the notoriously fractious Pakistan team into a formidably disciplined side capable of matching the all-conquering West Indies.

Tony Greig, before he became a prime mover in Kerry Packer's rebel World Series, restored the fight to the England side after they had been battered into submission by Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson.

Richie Benaud, now the game's elder statesman, was the most innovative and original captain of his time. For his part, Benaud regarded Keith Miller, an all-rounder of similar glamour and stature as Imran, as the finest captain he ever played under.

The establishment regarded Miller with deep suspicion and, although he was an outstanding skipper of New South Wales, he never captained Australia.

Despite the counter-claims of Andrew Strauss, who led England to a 3-0 win over Pakistan, handing the captaincy back to Flintoff is a positive statement of intent.

Under Flintoff, England will take the attack to Australia, as they did so memorably in 2005, and the enforced rest may well have been to his benefit in today's crowded calendar.

Flintoff is raring to go.

"It's going to be a tough winter, the Ashes in Australia and the chance to go to the West Indies," he said. "It's a tough challenge but I think it will be the best winter of our lives.

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