It is not often that the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards – an annual cringe-fest, replete with leaden gags and squirming athletes – provides much insight into the inner workings of a sporting team, but such a moment occurred on Sunday.
A seemingly well-oiled Andrew Flintoff shuffled to the podium to collect the award for Team of the Year on behalf of the England cricket team, who watched on from Johannesburg via satellite link on the big screen behind him.
It was an arresting sight: the team clad in pristine white polo shirts and congregated around their captain like eager school-children at morning assembly; Flintoff, on the other hand, appeared louche and unshaven and sounded suspiciously garrulous.
There was a brief moment of embarrassment as the host, Gary Lineker, asked Flintoff’s opinion of his ex-captain, Andrew Strauss. The two men are known to dislike one another and the big screen briefly captured Strauss’s discomfort as Flintoff made reference to “Strauss having wanted the captaincy for a long time” – a reference to the Ashes tour of 06/07 – but the moment passed and Flintoff uttered only a few more banalities to the relief of all concerned.
Freddie might remain loved by the general sporting public, but the impression conveyed over the satellite link is that the team has moved on.
Flintoff’s retirement from Test cricket presents England with both an opportunity and a problem. The problem is how to balance the team.
The English press is full of arguments and counter-arguments as to who should play where.
The general consensus is that Strauss, Andy Flower and Ashley Giles (the third selector) should opt to attack and select five bowlers. This would mean either Luke Wright or Stuart Broad batting at 7.
The enthusiastic Wright has his supporters, but some question whether his “bits and pieces” cricketing style is good enough for Test cricket. Broad batted well at 8 during the Ashes, but most observers – Andy Flower included – doubt that he is yet good enough to bat at 7.
It may be, therefore, that the selectors opt to play Ian Bell and select only four bowlers.
This carries its own risks since there are injury worries over both James Anderson and Ryan Sidebottom and there must be doubts that both will last the five days of a Test match.
But if the first Test track is as green as reported, then expect England to line up as follows: Strauss, Cook, Trott, Pietersen, Collingwood, Bell, Prior, Broad, Swann, Sidebottom, Anderson.
Positive mood music is commonplace in international sport nowadays, but the vibes emanating from the England camp are unusually gung ho.
It may be mere coincidence but since Flintoff’s retirement from Test cricket, the team has never seemed more united. Giles observes that he has never seen a more hard-working or athletic England squad. Matt Prior suggests that this England team is, at last, concerned more with team performance than with individual performances.
The team is well led by Strauss and Flower, and it seems fair to remark that, for the first time in a long time, the England cricket team is more than the sum of its parts.
The South Africans, on the other hand, seem vulnerable. Graeme Smith and Micky Arthur began the one-day series in full, trash talking mode, but so far their ability at mind games seems to be more Keeganesque than Fergusonesque.
A 2-1 series defeat in the ODIs made them rather more humble and both men have seemed downbeat in recent press conferences. Smith’s aggressive style has not always been popular with his team-mates, and it remains to be seen whether his continuing verbal jabs at Kevin Pietersen – most recently describing him as a “loner” – will go down well with players like Dale Steyn, Mark Boucher and Jacques Kallis, all of whom are friendly with Pietersen.
The fact remains, however, that this Proteas line-up is formidable. Smith, de Villiers, Kallis and Steyn would walk into the England team.
Neither bowling attack appears to have the depth required to take twenty wickets consistently, and so it could be that both teams spend many hours in the field. On paper, the South Africans probably edge it.
But the series will be fought on grass, and the greater synergy of this England team might just enable them to repeat their 2-1 victory of 2004/5.
Either way, it should be a cracking contest.