Thursday, August 23, 2012

Reality Check For England

Following the England cricket team is a bizarre experience. For several decades they were mediocre at best. Central contracts ushered in a new era of professionalism however and as Australia's dominance started to wain, England have won three out of the last four Ashes series.

Despite all this, for most England followers it was hard to believe that the dominance they showed down under recently was real. That feeling was reinforced when they buckled so badly at the WACA, it had all been an illusion and it was back to the Aussies on top. But what happened afterwards at the MCG and the SCG threw all that on its' head. Dare to say it..... England are quite good.

India were put to the sword in the most clinical of fashions last Summer and suddenly England were No1 and there seemed little doubt that they fully deserved it. A settled batting line up - with only a nagging doubt about the No6 spot - and an all conquering attack, fantastic times to be an England fan with the odd T20 World Cup win thrown in too.

The reality is of course that Test Cricket itself is in decline with Australia, the West Indies and to a lesser extent Pakistan offering up pretty mediocre fare for the traditional power houses. India also it seems now has little interest in anything longer than 50 overs that isn't played in it's own backyard. England were No1 but one could ask, so what?

South Africa are a genuinely good Test team, everyone knew that and it was billed rightly as the defining series in the World right now. What England found however is that whilst they have become extremely good at bullying lesser teams ruthlessly, they appear to be rather less good at scrapping in close contests.

England were poor earlier this year against Pakistan with lots of talk of being 'undercooked', of a lack of preparation and an almost obsession about playing spin against sub continent teams with DRS. Sri Lanka came and went and so we moved on back home and the West Indies were duly dispatched.

England's preparations against South Africa were perfect even managing a sound thrashing of Australia in the ODI series to boot. South Africa were apparently the ones short of match practise and the media - this blog included - were lulled into the expectation of a sound Engalnd series victory.

But what transpired was very different with South Africa offering a master class in batting during the first test as England were literally hammered in the most crushing of defeats.

Whilst the second and third tests were much closer affairs, since the opening hours of the first test, there are very few sessions that England can look back on and say 'we won that one'. There was always the sense that England were hanging in there rather than ever really being on top, short bursts aside.

Whilst the bowling still looks decent with Swann, Anderson and Broad - although strangely down on pace - all looking the class acts that they undoubtedly are, the batting is now causing real cause for concern.

Cook has had a phenomenal couple of years and should bear no criticism but Strauss, great captain that he remains is becoming burdensome for the team due to his relative lack of runs. More competition for places is required for the openers. Cook averaged only 32.5 in the series with Strauss even worse with an entirely mediocre 17.8.

Jonathan Trott seems less assured than in previous times and with the loss of Kevin Pietersen, England's batting line up now looks brittle where previously it had looked fabulous and with great depth. Of England's premier front line, only KP in his four innings averaged above 50, Jonny Bairstow aside.

The KP saga has been an unfortunate sideshow and it remains to be seen what the long term ramifications will be. It is clear that the ECB, Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss have lost patience entirely with the player and it has been noticeable that there has been no evident support from KP from anyone within the dressing room.

Whilst England's stance is commendable, it is clearly a 'lose lose' situation for everyone as England can little afford the loss of one of their premier batsmen. KP is a big game player and with ten Ashes tests looming in less than twelve months, a way to reintegrate him into the side would be the best outcome.

Jonny Bairstow everyone seems to believe has the talent and potential to become an England regular but he is young and needs time. Both Ravi Bopara and Eoin Morgan have shown time and time again that whilst they are extremely capable limited overs players, they lack the technique and possibly concentration at the very top of test cricket.

It is not all doom and gloom for England, they have after all been beaten by a very good side but there is definitely food for thought.

What is key is how England react to this set back and their Winter tour to India now takes on added spice given that they have lost series to both Pakistan and South Africa already this year. Winning in India is always tough but it would be the perfect way to set themselves up for next year's Ashes bonanza - No Nonsense.