England’s disastrous Ashes campaign has left Andrew Flintoff close to exhaustion. With every defeat, he reiterates he has no regrets about taking on the captaincy. And with every defeat, the extra responsibility weakens him. He looked, when the fourth Test was all over at the MCG on Thursday, like a man on autopilot, drained, bewildered and with little left to give.
Flintoff has been hailed as England’s inspiration: Heroic, loyal, uplifting, seemingly indefatigable. His popularity has been unbounded. But Australia now need only to win in Sydney to inflict the first 5-0 Ashes whitewash since 1920-21, and the victory that would bring Ricky Ponting’s side lasting fame would surely bring Flintoff’s own leadership to a depressing conclusion.
Michael Vaughan waits to resume in next month’s triangular one-day series, in which Flintoff might not even bowl. He complained this week that, at its most painful, he still feels as if “a bolt is being driven though the back of my ankle”. That Vaughan might not recover full fitness in time is a scenario England’s selectors dare not contemplate.
Only once after the fourth Test, as he considered defeat, by an innings and 99 runs in less than three days, did Flintoff stray from the platitudes that have sustained him through successive media interrogations.
Asked how badly he wanted to avoid a whitewash, he snapped: “That’s a stinking question. I don’t think that question needs to be asked.”
A more pertinent question is, what Flintoff can do to stop it. He insisted that England’s dressing room spirit remained strong, but there is now little evidence of that on field. England’s second-innings collapse smacked of defeatism, so much so that Geoffrey Boycott was moved to complain: “It’s like they’ve given up.”
“I knew when I took on this job that it was a big job, but it was something I wanted to do,” Flintoff said. “I’m not in the greatest form of my life, but it’s not through lack of trying. I can’t blame my own form on having the captaincy. It’s just the course of events.”
Flintoff is captaining an England side that has lost Marcus Trescothick to a recurring stress-related illness, that has had to contend with his own debilitating ankle problem, that has seen Steve Harmison become so disillusioned with international circuit that he has retired from one-day cricket, and that has been blown aside by an Australia side dedicated to giving Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath an unprecedented send-off and that, even considering the large entourage of wives, girlfriends and children, smacks of a collapse of team spirit.
“There is a lot of character and there is a lot of pride and I will reiterate that,” he said. “It is not nice when that is questioned. It’s been a tough trip. We have got one game left. We have come to the final one and we don’t want to leave having lost 5-0. We want to win a game of cricket. I think I can lift the lads and I think they can lift themselves.
“In our dressing room is a great spirit and that has been there for a long time. That has not been dented. Although we have had the disappointments of losing games of cricket, it is the same fantastic blend of people.”
Yet, Flintoff’s talk of a “fantastic blend” does not entirely convince, especially when it comes to considering his relationship with coach Duncan Fletcher. Fletcher’s bond with Nasser Hussain was strong, so much so that Hussain in retirement remains fiercely supportive of Fletcher.
If Fletcher had initial reservations about Vaughan, Hussain’s successor, he soon came to regard him as indispensable — so much so that he advocated that Vaughan retain the England captaincy throughout his year’s absence with knee trouble — encouraging him to remain close to the squad, even when on crutches.
The Flintoff-Fletcher combination does not gell as naturally. Fletcher likes his captains to be shrewd, analytical and independent, and Flintoff is forever the bluff socialiser. Fletcher is also too guarded and serious-minded for Flintoff to confide in. They may work together professionally enough, but on this most demanding of tours, they have not drawn strength from each other.
Fletcher is as loyal as he is taciturn, yet he still countered that he was “not the only selector,” when he was criticised for not choosing Monty Panesar in the second Test in Adelaide, as if determined that Flintoff should take a share of the blame.
On the field, Australia have won all the big moments. There have been times when Flintoff’s tactics have been held to have contributed, such as the defensive field placings after lunch on the second day in Melbourne, when Matthew Hayden and Andrew Symonds began to wrest away the match.
Fletcher insisted that the Ashes captaincy was discussed at length, after being increasingly impressed by Andrew Strauss’s leadership against Pakistan. But Flintoff had indicated during the summer, as he fought back from ankle trouble, that he badly wanted the role and the selectors had all but given him assurances that, in Vaughan’s absence, he would get the job. The selectors were not about to undermine their champion all-rounder by taking it from him.
Instead, thanks to a gruelling Ashes schedule and an inspired Australia side, giving him the captaincy has had precisely the same effect.