Cricket: Enjoy the feeling, it may not last long

Stephen Brenkley, Cricket Correspondent, argues that for all England's admirable character the weaknesses are still too glaring and the quality too shallow to provide prolonged glory
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The Independent Online
Euphoria was a natural state for England to inhabit last week. It would be as well if they recognised that this is a place not necessarily on the same map as Utopia. Of course, it is impossible to overstate the substance of their emotive victory in the Test series against South Africa, achieved as it was in a classic match following one that was merely riveting. To come from behind in a five-match rubber in which they needed to win the last - a feat England had performed for the only time 75 years earlier - took deep reserves of character.

It is evidence that they possessed some of the right stuff, that they had at last, to put it bluntly, pulled their fingers out. And if their debt of gratitude to the umpires for doing likewise when it mattered will probably be mentioned whenever the summer of 1998 is recalled it was not the decisive influence. That was down to the England players themselves. They had talked the talk throughout many moderate series and must have ceased convincing themselves that they could actually do the job at hand. Either they were bad, or, when they were good, they could not apply the finishing touches.

The turning point, it is generally recognised, revolved slowly and agonisingly in the final five sessions of the Third Test at Old Trafford. England had been abysmal early in the match, and while words like spineless, gutless and heartless take care of many bodily parts in which they were distinctly lacking they probably do not run the full gamut. They were brainless and ballsless as well. Before the country could break into a rendition of its traditional sporting song for national teams, "Tell Me The Old, Old Story", somehow England hung on for the draw.

This had several immediate effects. One was that it kept alive a series which should have been dead and buried. Another was that England's self- belief rose accordingly (but then they had been telling us for ages that they honestly and truly believed). A third was that they will have spotted in the South Africans a flaw that had seemed to be patented by England for England, to wit a failure to finish off matches. But perhaps the most important, if inadvertent, result was that the team's stock suddenly rose in the community at large. The team had done what the country admires most: fought a noble, rearguard action to the bitter end with a collective spirit. They were loved again and thus armed went on to their present state of glory. Or something like that.

So far, so good. But it is now that they must be careful, that they must recognise the extent of their progress and realise that while they have left the gutter they are not exactly on a collision course for the stars. Last Saturday night, after he had assembled the greater part of his best innings for England (perhaps including the double century against Australia last year) Nasser Hussain kept repeating: "We haven't achieved anything yet."

He was probably aware at the time that his unbeaten 83, made in circumstances of enviable self-restraint, was one of the great England innings of the decade, but he would have none of it. He insisted that it was all for the team and the team had done nothing yet. Well, the next day and the day after they did but Nasser, in his role as effective vice-captain, may like to consider repeating to the team an amended version of his cautionary phrase. "We've achieved a bit but not much."

The Emirates Triangular Tournament in which they play their first match today, against Sri Lanka at Lord's, may be considered not much either. It is a different form of cricket played with a different England team, but to perform badly in it will severely diminish the recovery in the public's eyes. Winning the event will not matter so much as performing with a certain 50-over panache so that not only will the team's present status among supporters be retained but also that they are actually seen to be making reasonable progress towards the World Cup in this country next year.

There will be no rest for England until then. During the autumn and winter they will compete in limited-overs tournaments in Bangladesh, the United Arab Emirates and Australia. Somewhere in between, there are the Ashes. Above all there are the Ashes. It was to them and the chances of retrieving them that attention immediately turned after Monday's proceedings at Headingley ended. No sooner had Makhaya Ntini become the final leg-before victim of the series than fanciful thoughts were being entertained of the brothers Waugh enduring sleepless nights and Shane Warne deciding to retire rather than expose his recovering bowling shoulder to the rejuvenated Poms.

It is not like that, it is not remotely like that. England, a settled England, have won a long series and won it well at the death - the difference between the sides was truly about 23 runs over the series - but it was still only part of the preparatory work. While it is always foolhardy to trust Australians when it comes to their musings on any forthcoming series against the old country, the words on Friday of their former captain Allan Border struck a chord. "They had a great win against very good opposition and it's a huge confidence boost, but they mustn't get carried away," said the man who is now coaching Australia A on their Scottish tour. "I think the series will be a good one but I've just got a suspicion they are relying on [Darren] Gough and [Angus] Fraser too much."

At first sight these may seem rum thoughts from a senior representative - and a selector to boot - of a country who have enjoyed enormous success, not least because they have been lucky enough to unearth and rely on a freakish wrist spinner in Warne. Nor will he be retiring yet despite the leg-spinner's own off-handed words on the subject.

But Border was right, of course, and England's selectors will be only too painfully aware of it. Not that it will matter too much if the two seam bowlers in question can stay fit for the whole of the Australian tour, in which case they must be wrapped up in cotton wool now and never allowed out unless in an emergency. It seems to be asking for trouble, for instance, to select the 33-year-old Fraser, after such a hard, valiant season, in a one-day series where other bowlers may perform as adequate a role, and it is almost to be hoped his sore back prevents his playing this week.

Nor is it beyond the bounds of possibility that another seamer will come good for Australia - Dominic Cork back to his best, or Andrew Caddick, or Ed Giddins. But now that the first flush of relief and happiness is fading, what must be truly evident about England and what Border was indicating is the lack of potential cover. Not only for Gough and Fraser but everywhere. Replacement batsmen are hardly cover driving an elegant path to the selectors' door, never mind seam bowlers.

Worst of all, there is barely a mature spin bowler of any variety. As the team were not so long ago spineless, gutless and heartless so in that department we are fingerless and wristless. It will be down to Robert Croft and Ian Salisbury almost certainly, but given their recent Test bowling form they would travel with minimal hope and absolutely no expectation. England have won a major Test series for the first time in 12 years despite having no spin, not because of it.

This will not do for Australia, it will not do for anywhere else either. It has been six days since the great triumph and while euphoria cannot last it may be as well to book in for a month or so and enjoy that and the Emirates while we can.