Is winning a habit?


Winning is a habit and one England have kicked
By Mark Nicholas

You've got to love him, and thankfully we do. The blind faith with which Steve Harmison sprang to the defence of Andrew Flintoff last week was quite something.
"People have been waiting to have a go at Freddie," Harmison said. Really, have they?

"But in the last 18 months he hasn't put a foot wrong. There's only one England captain in my book and that's Andrew Flintoff." Right, Michael Vaughan is history then.

We know what Harmison meant about his buddy but sometimes it is better left unsaid, however much you love each other. The cynics feed off such morsels.

Flintoff's captaincy in Bombay was memorable for the moment at which it came and the miracle it made.

His leadership from the front is ideal at times of adversity but lacks any previous experience, which was pretty evident at Lord's.

This is not to say it won't come, just to point out that there is a long way to go and he is stretched enough as it is. Because of this, Vaughan's knee is every bit as worrying as Wayne Rooney's metatarsal.

More from Harmison, this time on the dropped catches. "If it hadn't been so serious it would have been hilarious.

I was sitting there in amazement thinking this just doesn't happen to an England team. Watching on Monday was the longest day of my life - a nightmare." Lucky you played rather than watched the Ashes last summer then, matey.

It did become funny, though, especially when Paul Collingwood shelled another before the close. Even the captain got the giggles. Unlike Bob Geldof, Collingwood and his guilty clan know why they don't like Mondays any more. Their last one was a shocker.

Let us stick with the quotes for a minute and move on to Andrew Strauss, at a speech to mark his presidency of the Primary Club Juniors.

"To dwell on it too much would be wrong; the nuts and bolts of our game - batting and bowling - on a very flat wicket were exceptional, but we let ourselves down a little with our catching." No kidding.

I hate to be a spoilsport, but here is a fact. England have won one of their last eight Test matches and three of their last 11 one-day games.

A couple of weeks ago this column suggested that the team had made as much or more progress since the Ashes as the Australians.

The reason was the integration of talented young players and the strength in depth that came from them.

First among equals was Alastair Cook, who batted with extraordinary maturity in India and stepped into first slip as if to the manor born.

Not so at third slip and then gully at Lord's, where he searched vainly for a hole in the estate to gobble him up.

The worrying aspect of the first Test of the summer was England's utter lack of ruthlessness.

Winning is a habit and it was mislaid in Multan, where they should have walked all over Pakistan. Getting it back is bloody hard work and requires greater intensity than was on show for the last two days against Sri Lanka.

It is all very well being relaxed, almost laissez-faire, at Lord's after an excellent first couple of days, but now is not the time. Now is the time for rolling up sleeves.

The team who won the Ashes were very, very good. But some of the personnel have changed, and therefore so have such essentials as fielding positions.

Not first and second slip, I hear you cry, but second slip's role has changed, which diverts his mind - and bowling responsibilities. This disrupts rhythm and needs to be addressed.

Tony Greig tells a story, endorsed by Geoffrey Boycott, of turning up for the first Test against Australia in 1972 under Ray Illingworth's captaincy to find a team chosen with only one specialist slipper.

Three catches were dropped off Geoff Arnold's bowling in the first over of the match - two by John Snow, a volunteer, and the third by Greig, a specialist. Three!

So this England side need not feel put upon. Rather they should concentrate more fiercely and consider technique.

There were two things in Flintoff's captaincy that surprised and one in his play during the first Test - perhaps one is because of the other.

He could have attacked more and bombed both Farveez Maharoof and Nuwan Kulasekara himself. It was unbelievable that they batted for so long without any physical threat and without silly points and short legs under their noses.

But Flintoff himself was down on pace and did not swing the ball much, and in order to bowl so many overs he had to conserve power.

This is a problem with the captaincy: it becomes impossible to see yourself objectively.

As to why he did not use more of Monty Panesar, I give up. Does he see finger spin as "step and fetch it" stuff? Why did his lieutenants not get in his ear on these subjects?

Strauss, Trescothick and Collingwood all appear to have good brains for the game and should be at Flintoff's side.

Strauss also said that it would take more than one bad day to upset the team's confidence, which is good news, but a glance in the mirror is worthwhile before the view turns more ugly.

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