Unless you have spent the past couple of days living in a cave, you will have noticed by now that there will be a slight change in the Test rankings next week. In some quarters, this will be seen as the pinnacle, and indeed there are already discussions of whether this is the greatest side England have ever produced. But we at 51allout are hard taskmasters and we will not be satisfied until this team has embarked on a period of domination so complete that future generations will look back and refuse to believe England were ever bowled out in an hour by Suliemann Benn.
We want the fun-filled cricket blog of the future to assume Gavin Hamilton was cunningly selected in South Africa a decade ago to subliminally encourage Virender Sehwag that he too would one day want to put in a performance that could not have been worse had one of us taken his place. We want to see the Australians so traumatised by England’s domination that they resort to picking ground staff for a tour of the sub-continent in sheer desperation.
Er, oh. Never mind.
We don’t think England are quite there yet. Whilst there is no doubt that they have played almost unbelievably well over the past year, there is still room for improvement.
The utter destruction of India has been achieved despite getting themselves into positions – particularly in the first two tests – where they really should have been made to pay. Twice the top order has collapsed (62/5 at Lords, 124/8 at Trent Bridge) and a team with a better attack could have finished them off in a hurry. The ability of the lower order is clearly a huge plus, but they cannot be relied upon to save them on the sub-continent against a phalanx of spinners, or next summer against Steyn and Morkel. The four Tests England have lost since The Andys infamous first game in charge have all been largely the fault of a batting collapse; at Headingley, The Wanderers, The Oval and Perth.
Jamiaca was an aberration, a once in a generation event, but the others have a common denominator; the ball was swinging. Indeed, on the rare occasion India have made the ball really talk this summer, England have struggled. Of course, the fact that most of the time someone has stood up and pulled a match-changing innings out is the hallmark of an excellent side, but looking ahead to the next year which will decide whether England really are the best team in the world, it is an area of slight concern. The series with South Africa next August will be the final hurdle, and the ball is likely to swing. Dale Steyn could do some serious damage if the slight technical faults which were so ruthlessly exposed in Perth, in particular, are not resolved by then.
It’s difficult to find fault with the bowling at all, the only issue has really been an inability to finish off the tail, which reared its head again in the first innings at Edgbaston. It hasn’t cost England much because they have usually gone out and got monumental scores, but on pitches where they aren’t going to get 700 (there are a few around, honestly) they mustn’t allow the opposition to get away from them. Again, Perth is a perfect example; having reduced Australia’s top order to nothing, they let Mitchell Johnson get Australia to 268. The last two wickets put on almost 80 runs, without which the Australians, despite England’s collapse, would not have had a first innings lead.
For a side with any number of well thought out plans for the opposition batsmen, they seem strangely short of ideas when the tail-enders decide to have a swing. Too often the fields become ridiculously defensive to the more accomplished player and they stop trying to get him out. It’s amazing how quickly momentum can shift in a Test match, and sometimes they appear to almost give the initiative away. With the bowling attack England have, there is absolutely no reason to become defensive when the opposition is 111/7, as India were last week. Keep the field up, tell the bowlers to bowl at the stumps, and go in for the kill.
The only other criticism of the side is rather more series-specific. Down Under England’s fielding was embarrassingly superior to Australia’s, whereas this summer it has been below the high standards they set for themselves. A number of catches have gone down, any number of which could have cost them dearly. Twice Sachin Tendulkar was dropped at slip in the same over at Lords, and had James Anderson not been able to come back the next ball and trap the Little Master LBW, the whole series could have turned out differently (unlikely, but possible). One feels that in Dubai and Sri Lanka over the winter, where there will be fewer chances presented, those that do arrive must be taken if England are to prevail.
The other issues are more to do with selection and the make up of the side. There seems to be an almost constant call to go with five bowlers, and although it appears something of an odd one when England have twice won Tests (Adelaide and Cardiff) recently with only three, it should merit consideration this winter. The problem is that ideally a five man attack in Sri Lanka would include a second spinner, but there isn’t really an outstanding candidate around. Furthermore, the same situation applies should Graeme Swann get injured. Samit Patel’s weight problems have deflected attention from the fact that he isn’t in any way international class and James Tredwell has had the opportunity to prove that he isn’t either. England dealt with Adil Rashid very badly by taking him on two senior tours and giving him no cricket, the upshot of which being that he has stagnated and doesn’t look to be in the selectors thinking at all. Unless they suddenly pick one of the younger spinners coming through – like Scott Borthwick at Durham – which would be a big surprise, the only option is Monty Panesar. Monty is far from an awful player, and would probably be the best option if they were to pick two spinners, but him for Swann would weaken the bowling, the batting and the slip cordon. Until one of the younger generation puts forward a serious case for inclusion, the back-up spinner position will remain something of a weakness. As a slightly left-field suggestion for this winter; getting Kevin Pietersen to put some hours in working on his bowling might not be the worst idea in the world.
England have any number of fast bowlers to choose from, and a plethora of young batsmen in contention for the middle order, but they lack any real depth in two positions; The aforementioned second spinner, and opening the batting. The latter is not a problem which could affect the team that seriously, but is still worth mentioning. Virtually no candidates from County Cricket spring to mind as potential replacement openers – even in the two Lions 4-day games this summer, none of the players who opened the innings in those matches are likely to do so for England in the foreseeable future. James Taylor and Jimmy Adams did so in the first match, Joe Root and Alex Hales in the second. Adams, Root and Hales are realistically a long way from the Test side, and while Taylor will play international cricket, it is extremely unlikely to be as an opener. Were either of Cook or Strauss to miss a Test, it is probable that Jonathan Trott would deputise, but that is not really a long term solution as it would weaken the middle-order, at least until the new man (presumably Taylor) had settled in.
We should applaud the achievement of getting to number one, but despite reaching the top, there are tough challenges ahead. This team has the potential to dominate for years to come but it would be foolish to believe they are the finished article. They are ranked highest, but they aren’t at their best. Yet.