What next for England after Ashes Euphoria?
A look ahead to the winter series in South Africa and Bangladesh . . .
After the Lord Mayor’s Show England and Australia are now in the middle of a marathon T20 and ODI series’ (why are there SEVEN ODIs incidentally?). Understandably thoughts also begin to turn to England’s next Test series away to the now top ranked South Africans, which starts with the 1st test at Centurion on 16th December. There has been a lot of talk in the media about England chasing the number one spot and some ridiculous comparisons with 2005 when England apparently sat on their laurels after overcoming Warne, McGrath and Ponting et al. Having lost their captain (Vaughan), best batsman (Trescothick) and several key bowlers (Jones & Giles) plus the dip in form of others (Jones, Harmison & Strauss) it is hardly surprising England under-performed after that memorable victory, which culminated in the 5-0 series reversal to a vengeful Australia in 2006/07. But that is another story.
Thankfully Messrs Strauss and Flower have their feet fixed firmly on the floor, which befits England’s position as the number five team in the ICC rankings. Strauss acknowledged that despite winning the series England had done just enough to win saying “When we were bad, we were very bad. When we were good we were just good enough.” This is spot on and the team has a long way to go before they can realistically target the number one spot or even match the Vaughan side of 2004-05, which won six series on the trot including a notable 2-1 success in South Africa.
Consequently, the next 14 months are critical for England to further improve as a unit before the ultimate litmus test of an Ashes series in Australia. After a supremacy lasting 15 years, Australia are in the midst of an extensive rebuilding process, which gives England their best chance for years to win a series Down Under. A cautionary note is needed here though as it must be remembered that only Mike Gatting (1987), Mike Brearley (1979 against a severely depleted Australia minus its World Series Cricket players), Ray Illingworth (1971) and Len Hutton (1955) have emerged triumphant from an Ashes contest on enemy ground since the infamous Bodyline series of 1933, when Douglas Jardine (Harlequin cap and all) and his side secured a 4-1 victory in perhaps the most controversial Ashes rubber of all time.
As well as the daunting trip to South Africa, England have home and away series against Bangladesh, which should provide the chance to rest key players and blood new talent. Then it’s Pakistan at home next summer before they next meet Ricky Ponting’s men in Brisbane in November 2010. It is vital that Strauss and Flower use this time wisely to address the numerous question marks hanging over the side so that England can emerge as a more consistent, formidable and cohesive unit.
Andrew Strauss and a notable debut from Jonathan Trott aside, the England batting this summer fell well below the standard required with doubts emerging about a number of players. This especially applies to Alistair Cook, whose only innings of note against the Australians was his 95 at Lords. He needs to address several serious technical deficiencies particularly outside off-stump plus convert more starts into big scores. Whilst the selectors should persevere with Cook initially, England must pick a reserve opener for the South Africa tour, and if not blooded against the Proteas should ensure they play him in Bangladesh in February.
The consistency shown by the selectors is to be applauded and it certainly paid off with the selection of Trott. As such it appears Joe Denly, who has been called up for the current T20 and ODI series, is the next cab off the rank, so he can expect to be on the plane to South Africa.
Three is key
You would need to have been on Mars since 2005 to not be aware that number three is a problem position for England. Ian Bell has now had 33 innings in this pivotal position, has yet to score a century and averages a paltry 31.43 – England’s Ponting he is not! Ravi Bopara looked out of his depth against the Aussies after getting easy runs against the West Indies, so this position is up for grabs. Traditionally, the best batsman in the side comes in at three, so it is time for Kevin Pietersen to take on extra responsibility and move up the order. If not Jonathan Trott showed at the Oval that he potentially has the technique, fortitude and concentration required to bat at three.
With Pietersen coming back in and Trott doing more than enough at the Oval to retain his place, opinion differs on who should fill the third position in the England middle order for the 1st Test against the Proteas. The main candidates are Bell, Bopara and Paul Collingwood.
As usual after he has had a couple of poor Tests, a lot of people are writing off Collingwood. Whilst it is true that he didn’t make any runs of note at Edgbaston, Headingley or the Oval, it seems to have been conveniently forgotten that without his 74 (from 245 balls) at Cardiff, England would have lost the 1st Test and probably the series. The Durham battler’s critics also overlook his record since he was restored to the side at Edgbaston against South Africa last summer (after being dropped for the previous Test – another defeat at Headingley). Since then Collingwood averages over 50 and has scored four centuries and six fifties (from 16 matches). He is also close to Strauss, is the effective vice-captain of the team and its best fielder. Therefore, he should retain his place for now.
Bell did well enough after his recall to justify his selection in the squad for South Africa, which means that Bopara should miss out until the Bangladesh tour where he should be given an opportunity at four or five.
With Matt Prior having cemented his position, it is important that England identify a back-up keeper in case the Sussex man’s form dips or he suffers an injury. A bewildering number of keepers have been tried and discarded by England since the retirement of Alec Stewart. Of these, Geraint Jones (5 centuries for Kent this season at number three), Chris Read (4 centuries for Notts at an average of over 80) and James Foster are still performing well. Stephen Davies of Worcestershire also merits a mention and Tim Ambrose was in the squad in the West Indies earlier this year.
However, the most likely long-term candidate is Craig Kieswetter of Somerset; yet another potential England cricketer born and developed in South Africa. The 21-year-old, like Trott a South Africa Under-19 international, qualifies for England by residence in February. An exciting and attacking batsman, Kieswetter, who has scored over 1,000 runs this season and who has been likened by some to Pietersen, is being monitored closely by the national selector, Geoff Miller. He is likely to be brought into the set-up in 2010.
With most of the batsman having poor series returns, it was the ‘all-rounders’ Flintoff, Broad and Swann who provided much needed runs down the order. Alas, Flintoff is now an ex-Test cricketer and England need to move on. Broad has shown enough talent with the bat to make the move up to seven, but England need to be careful not to put too much pressure on him.
Two other options for England at seven are Adil Rashid and Luke Wright. Rashid, the Yorkshire leg spinner, is a fine prospect and has been nominated by Shane Warne. There is a no finer endorsement than that and Rashid must be on the plane for South Africa even if as likely, only one spinner (Swann) will be required in the final XI. Rashid could then be blooded in Bangladesh, where two spinners will be needed. If he does well he may find himself under serious consideration for the Ashes in 2010 as leg spinners have a much better record of success in Australia than off spinners.
Wright has done well for Sussex this season and has improved his bowling significantly now reaching an average speed of around 85 miles per hour. He is not the finished article yet, but again the selectors will be tempted to blood him against Bangladesh in order to enable Broad to put his feet up for a much needed rest.
Spin to win
With Swann being the joint leading wicket taker in Test cricket in 2009 and Rashid likely to be on the plane to South Africa, Monty Panesar’s star has well and truly fallen. His performances for Northants this year have been disappointing and he is clearly lacking in confidence. However, the fact that he was selected in the squad for the Oval shows that the selectors still have faith in him and he is likely to get an opportunity against Bangladesh.
For the first time in eons, it appears that England has a number of quality spinners to choose from and with other promising spinners such as leggies Will Beer of Sussex and Max Waller of Somerset coming through, it is hoped that there will be competition for places for some time to come.
Pace, swing & seam
With Flintoff retiring from Test cricket and Steve Harmison unsure whether to follow, England need to make some adjustment to their battery of fast bowlers. Graham Onions, James Anderson and Ryan Sidebottom are certainties to join Broad on the South African jaunt, and Harmison should be persuaded to shelve any retirement plans for now.
England should also take the opportunity to take a young fast bowler on the trip for the experience and then look to play him against Bangladesh in February (Harmison is unlikely to be persuaded to tour there!). Steve Finn of Middlesex seems to be the most likely option here and Liam Plunkett and/or Sajid Mahmood may also make the trip to the sub-continent.
Therefore, the squads and initial starting XIs for the trips to South Africa and Bangladesh could be:
Squad: Strauss (C), Cook, Denly, Pietersen, Trott, Collingwood, Bell, Prior, Foster, Broad, Swann, Rashid, Anderson, Onions, Harmison, Sidebottom & Finn
XI for 1st Test: Strauss (C), Cook, Pietersen, Trott, Collingwood, Prior, Broad, Swann, Anderson, Harmison & Onions
Squad: Strauss (C), Denly, Trott, Bell, Bopara, Wright, Kieswetter, Foster, Rashid, Sidebottom, Plunkett, Onions, Panesar & Finn (with Cook, Pietersen, Collingwood, Prior, Broad, Swann, Anderson and Harmison all rested)
Possible XI for 1st Test: Strauss (C), Denly, Trott, Bell, Bopara, Kieswetter, Wright, Rashid, Sidebottom, Finn & Panesar
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