England: Where To From Here?Ewen Day-Collins |
If English cricket had received a surprising but jolting kick up the backside from New Zealand on those distant shores, Andy Flower’s pre-eminent team restored the faith of the England fan in the return leg, faith that had been held so confidently just two years back. A home whitewash of New Zealand surely marks the beginning of England’s resurgence.
Yet they are still faced with problems that will not be resolved by the Ashes later this year. They will, easily, skip past the mediocrity offered by the enemy in retaining the urn; they will invoke the calm superiority displayed in dispatching New Zealand when faced with similarly substandard opposition later this summer.
This should not obscure the objective of this England team. This objective soars above the walloping of such opposition as Chris Rodgers and Ed Cowan. It goes to the heart of all of sport’s aims: being, and beating, the best. A decade ago, when the Aussies possessed Warne and McGrath, not to mention Hayden and Langer and Ponting and Gilchrist, that great team sought that very objective. That included facing the tough test posed by England towards the denouement of that marvellous side: destroying Trescothick, Vaughan, Flintoff and Hoggard was not as simple – note 2005 – as England’s reciprocal task is today. Yet while the Ashes should be taken seriously owing to its historical significance and the fact Australia can never be that bad even if they’ve rarely been worse, unlike in the past the Ashes should not be the benchmark towards which this England team aspire.
This benchmark should be the zenith of cricket’s rankings, and the beating of the world’s best sides, of which Australia is not one. We should not forget that this recent victory merely returns England to their gloriously effective strength of 2011 – unbeaten, winning in 75 per cent of matches. These sky-high achievements were punctured as if slicing through a hot air balloon while up in the air: England tumbled inexorably. The team lost all three matches against Pakistan; could only draw against Sri Lanka; and then were humiliated by the best, South Africa, at home. Admittedly, this nadir was mitigated if not reconciled by an irrelevant, early-summer triumph over the West Indies and then a somewhat more significant toppling of India in November and December. Yet the typical paucity of 2012 was promptly resumed by the three drawn Tests – fortunately not recorded as losses – away in New Zealand at the start of 2013.
Therefore, this victory is representative of a revival, not a continuation of dominance. Equally, we should not judge the success of this revival totally on the results of back-to-back Ashes series. It was the loss against South Africa that exposed the baselessness of the various positive platitudes England had received; it meant they were dethroned as world number ones, a crown they have not recaptured. This is, partly, on what England will be judged; any future tours to South Africa will also take on a heightened significance. However, because we have reached the conclusion that England’s success will be marked by the long-term attainment of this side, there are a handful of difficulties to resolve that will, hopefully, not be disguised by the indifferent thrashing of a weakened enemy later this year.
We might as well begin at the beginning and with Nick Compton. As a follower of Compton’s domestic home, Somerset, I was as enthralled by his stoic batting in 2012’s county Championship as I was underwhelmed by his previous exploits since joining from Middlesex – who, in Division Two, had dropped him. Indeed, it was only owing to numerous injuries that Compton made the Somerset side; if not for Marcus Trescothick’s injury, Arul Suppiah would not have been partnered by the grandson of Dennis at the top of the order. Nick has transferred his mechanical, restrained style – accentuated by an upright stance that produces a laborious movement towards the ball – into the Test arena. In praising his successive centuries in New Zealand, it would be foolish not to acknowledge alarm at his evident discomfort against the spinning ball in India – four Tests; one fifty – and his perhaps more serious shortcomings against the prodigiously swinging fast ball in English conditions, especially in this series when coming from the hand of the talented Tim Southee. As an opener, Compton will face these conditions, and a far greater quantity of right-arm swing bowling, when up against Australia in the summer. Few believe he will succeed.
I am inclined, as will the England selectors, to retain Compton in the team for the very immediate future, though for different reasons. Geoff Miller and his gang unwaveringly embrace the doctrine of selection continuity. I am unable to see a better option for opener that does not entail an unnecessary injection of either instability or risk. Some will argue that Jonathan Trott should be forced up a position, though his consistency at number three is both valued and vulnerable by shifting. The same can be said for Joe Root, who played so magnificently for his century at Headingley, with a flair and decisive movement so lacking from Compton’s game. Yet, despite his precocity, he is in such a nascent stage of his career that to plunge him into the intense pressure of the opening position could compromise his development towards the future occupation of that position of which he will surely attain. I am most tempted by placing the returning Kevin Pietersen at number two. Yet beyond entertaining that delightful prospect it is neither likely nor judicious – he was hardly inspiring as opener in the World Cup and already thrives in his middle-order position. The returning Pietersen will instead supplant Jonny Bairstow, who will be placed back on the cab rank of future prospects for the foreseeable future. Compton will stay, but only momentarily.
Opener is a troubling position in the immediate future, therefore, though Root seems a long-term solution. Yet it is the age of England’s batsmen that is most concerning considering England’s dynastical ambitions – Trott is 32, Ian Bell 31, Pietersen 32, Compton (if he survives) 29 and Matt Prior 31. These will need replacing. It is likely that England will be plunged suddenly into a need to fill these spaces with inexperienced players, especially as these middle-order batsmen are all of similar age. There is simply no space to try out potential other than Root. The prudent but gentle introduction of youngsters into the batting line-up is England’s most pressing but seemingly unworkable objective. Not only will these batsmen be chronically inexperienced but who will they be? The England Lions middle-order is formed of James Taylor, Ravi Bopara and Bairstow, all of whom looked distinctly unconvincing at Test level. Indeed, the openers Michael Carberry (who is 32 anyhow) and Varun Chopra are even more so. Ben Stokes hardly displayed the kind of committed attitude required in being expelled from the Lions tour of Australia for heavy drinking. Further, is it likely that Eoin Morgan will stop his slide towards Test obscurity? Root has disguised a shortfall in suitable replacement batsmen for the England Test side, replacements who will be needed very soon as England?s wearied journeymen retire in quick succession.
Fast bowling is far less of a concern. James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Steven Finn are all indelible and outstanding names on the starting line-up. The latter two are young and England possess esteemed back-up options – Graham Onions and the two Chrises, Tremlett and Woakes. In the latter, as well as Toby Roland-Jones and more inspiringly James Harris, England have a swathe of young fast bowlers to continue the destruction of the complementary incumbents – the swing of Anderson, the pace of Finn and the bit-of-both offered by Broad was lethal against New Zealand. In the much longer term, the Overton twins – especially Jamie – from Somerset are a sparkling delight to watch and promise real potential with both bat and, perhaps more so, with ball.
However, in the department of spin England have most to worry about. Graeme Swann is the world?s supreme spinner behind Saeed Ajmal; his deputy, Monty Panesar, is almost as excellent. Yet Swann is 34 and Panesar 31; neither twirleymen will be operating for England in the near future. Who will replace them? Lancashire’s Simon Kerrigan is good but hardly befitting of a side with world-topping ambitions; his average of 27.92 with 131 wickets in 42 games is creditable though not sparkling. Kerrigan is best described as a poor man’s Ashley Giles, hardly an awe-inspiring comparison. Equally, another slow left-armer Danny Briggs is praiseworthy but not Test-worthy; an average of 32.33 with 132 wickets in 43 matches is best kept for the domestic game. James Tredwell is neither good enough nor young enough, at 31, to be a long-term option. England’s spinning credentials beyond Swann and Panesar are a profound concern.
This is not to dismiss England’s outstanding achievements, which will surely continue this year. It is merely to point out that if a side with such lofty ambitions have designs on further and, most crucially, sustained domination, not recognising the serious challenges ahead would quash those aims. When the great Australia team left, in their place was a squad woefully below their standards; a similar regression inflicted the West Indies after their magnificent team of the 1980s departed. England should and need not let this occur. So while this victory over New Zealand has returned Flower’s men to a position from which they can launch their assault against the Aussies, when that assault is successful it will be easy to neglect the pursuit of a solution for when the majority of England’s Golden Generation move on. And, as any observer knows, complacency is the most poisonous substance in sport.