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Life After Flintoff

Martyn Corrin | 1:13pm gmt 10 Aug 2009
Life After FlintoffOver the course of eight gruelling sessions at Headingley, one of the more popular myths of English cricket was exposed as just that. That is that England are a better team without Andrew Flintoff and that Kevin Pietersen is a detrimental influence on the performance of the side. England's bowling toiled without Flintoff, the middle order capitulated in the wake of Pietersen's absence, and a young bowler, with all-rounder aspirations, was exposed batting at seven after the aforementioned middle order collapse.

The England selectors will no doubt breathe a huge sigh of relief whenever Pietersen is fit to return to action; it will give them one less dilemma to contemplate, as despite the way he polarises opinion, Pietersen picks himself. He is one of the best batsmen in the world, "you don't know what you've got till it's gone" has never seemed more apt. However, their relief at his likely return in the coming winter is no doubt set to be tempered by the rather larger dilemma that stands ahead. That is, of course, replacing the man who has been seen as the most important figure in the side for a good five or six years now, England's talisman, Andrew Flintoff.

Stuart Broad is no doubt a very talented batsman, and when the mood takes him he is capable of flaying attacks; see his late-hitting for pride in England's second innings at Headingley. But a number seven batsman? Not yet. Broad's bowling has slowly improved during this Ashes series, he found a much better length at the end of the Edgbaston Test and was England's best bowler at Headingley, regardless of how many wickets people feel he actually deserved. It would therefore be prudent if he was allowed to focus on his bowling for now, which is, after all, his primary task. Selecting him at seven was asking too much of him, even accounting for the fact that such an appalling collapse could not be anticipated. With this in mind, it is clear that when Flintoff steps out of the Test side for good, he should, generally, be replaced by a batsman, not a bowler. There will always be exceptions (Broad batted at seven against the West Indies in the spring and there was never likely to be a problem there), but without a world-class all-rounder then you have to go with the accepted cricketing convention of six batsmen, a wicket-keeper and four bowlers.

Of course, we do have to consider that England's bowling does look weaker without Flintoff. They are not incapable of firing without him; the first innings at Edgbaston in this Ashes series showed us that - Flintoff took no wickets there and Australia were skittled for 260. He undoubtedly gives England a better chance of taking twenty wickets though, so without him, how does the attack shape up? At the current time you would have to imagine that if England were to pick four bowlers they would be Stuart Broad, Graeme Swann, James Anderson and Graham Onions. Would the selectors be happy with this, though? It would appear that the reason Stephen Harmison played at Headingley was because the selectors were worried about the loss of aggression caused by Flintoff's absence. Alas, it is something they have to deal with, and surely by now everybody has realised that Harmison ceased to be the answer a long time ago.

Looking at the rest of the bowling stocks, it would appear there aren't a whole lot of options ready to make the breakthrough. It would seem very unlikely that England's selectors would want to give up on Stuart Broad now, but he would clearly need to step up his progress to play in a four-man attack. With Graeme Swann clearly a more than capable number eight, Broad's batting should play less of a role in his selection if England do indeed replace Flintoff in the long-term with a batsman. As such, while he will continue to be the man in possession, the likes of Ryan Sidebottom will be keenly knocking on the door in the hope of a recall. I expect Sidebottom to tour South Africa where England play a four-match series, and he may well get a chance. Monty Panesar will also likely remain around the squad as the backup spinner, it is hard to see too many others considered to join them in the touring party. Perhaps a name like Sajid Mahmood may be one the selectors return to, as they seem to continue to be keen on him.

While the bowling is likely to remain settled, the batting is an interesting predicament. As stated previously, Flintoff should be replaced by a batsman in the long-term. It is difficult to pinpoint who this should be, however, because it is currently quite the task to predict who will be batting for England in the deciding Ashes Test next week!

Of the current batting line-up, Andrew Strauss's place is as safe as a house, even if he wasn't captain. So too, should be Paul Collingwood's, for the time being. Alastair Cook has not had the best time over the last couple of years, but him and Strauss have forged an impressive partnership overall and that may well be sufficient for his place to be retained. And, of course, Kevin Pietersen will slot back into his number four slot when his achilles is heeled.

This leavs two slots open, three and six. Ian Bell has performed well at six in the past, but has flattered to deceive in his latest recall and you have to wonder whether he may be looking at a long exile from the team if he fails again at The Oval (if he plays there at all). He will probably travel with the squad this winter, but I would not expect it to be as an automatic selection. Ravi Bopara certainly needs to spend next summer in county cricket and shouldn't even be considered for the England team again in the next twelve months. Therefore Jonathan Trott seems to be the favourite to fill one of the spots. All indications suggest that he has similar 'lbw candidate' tendencies to Bopara and the last thing England need at three is that. Therefore if he is to come in it would most likely be down at six. There have been questions over Trott's attitude in the past, and given the public's unfair distrust of Kevin Pietersen, Trott would have to do very well to win over the people. Alas, the people do not pick the team and Trott has been performing very well for Warwickshire this summer. I would be very surprised if he didn't travel to South Africa in the winter. In fact, if overlooked, he may well make his England debut in his native country, where he will no doubt get as welcome a reputation as Pietersen did in 2005.

The problem spot since Michael Vaughan stepped out of the team, of course, has been three. Many critics and fans alike would love to see Pietersen bat there; he is happy at four and performs well there, a change is both unlikely and unnecessary. Some have even bandied about Collingwood's name to bat there, but Collingwood is hugely valuable down at five where he can dig in and rebuild a broken innings. He is not a technical wizard and could very well be found wanting if asked to bat in the pivotal number three position. Mark Ramprakash's name is being heavily circulated at the minute, ahead of the crucial Test match next week, but aged 39 he would hardly be a long-term solution.

One other name that has been constantly linked with a recall over the last twelve months is that of Rob Key. He averages just 31 in Tests and hasn't played one for four years, but he has been enjoying a successful season with Kent, averaging over 50. Key would have no problem batting at three, he is easily capable of batting anywhere in the top three. The big concern will be his previous performances in Tests, though. In fifteen matches, he has only managed to score one century, which came against the West Indies (although it was a double-century, a rare feat amongst Englishmen in the 21st century!). England have had their fingers burnt just recently by selecting a batsman at three after scoring big runs against the West Indies, so the selectors will want to be absolutely certain that Key has improved in the last four years before they ink him in as part of their planning for the future. His shot-selection was disappointing in his previous run in the team, and much like Ian Bell, had a tendency to score a few, look set, then get out. He certainly does appear to be in the selectors' thoughts though; he has captained the England Lions over the last couple of years and was selected in the squad for the World Twenty20 Championship earlier in the season. The only disappointment for Key if he is to be recalled to the England squad in the coming weeks or months is that he will do so after his good friend Andrew Flintoff has departed the side (though of course they may play one last Test together).

There are other names, of course, that may come into consideration, alas Key and Trott seem to be the most likely. Owais Shah has probably seen the ship sail on his Test career, and no other names seem to be knocking on the door quite hard enough.

There can be no doubt that it will take time to adjust to the post-Flintoff era, but it is something that the selectors should have been contemplating for quite some time. Of course, as we have all seen in recent months, it is not really just the gap that Flintoff leaves which needs to be plugged, because the team has a lot of question marks over it at the moment. However getting the Flintoff replacement right needs to be the first priority, because anyone who watched the horrorshow at Headingley should be aware how England looked unbalanced, and, well, dismal.

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