England can look forward to home and the summer now. But what they must avoid awhile yet is allowing all thoughts to turn to the Australians and the two Ashes series that will dominate the year.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that such inadvertent, subconscious wanderings of the mind contributed to their troubles against New Zealand in the three-Test series from which they emerged by the skin of their teeth and a coat of varnish around Matt Prior’s stumps with a 0-0 draw. And the Kiwis are up next for two Test matches in May at Lord’s, which is already sold out, and Headingley, which is not.
They will be much more than a warm-up act for the big show to follow. England have seen enough of them in the past few weeks on their wanderings round this blissful country to be fully aware that they will be nothing if not Test match hardened by the time Australia hit town in July.
Andy Flower, the England coach, was in no mood to make excuses or to underestimate the task of what lies ahead as he ruminated yesterday. “I don’t think when you’re playing international cricket that there’s ever a time you can feel completely comfortable or complacent because that would be a dangerous place to be,” he said. “We realise we weren’t good enough here to win the series and we will have to be more skilful than we were here to have a great summer.”
If New Zealand will be no walkover, it is a blessing that Australia have become a shadow of the team they once were. If the Aussies of 10 years ago were the opposition the evidence of this tour would not give England a prayer. They must make amendments and they must do so quickly.
While the batsmens’ shortcomings were glaringly exposed with two limp first innings out of three the bowlers’ deficiencies were less obvious. Flower readily conceded them.
“We didn’t really swing the ball out here and we expected to,” he said. “But New Zealand did and certainly if you don’t move the ball sideways you aren’t going to cause problems.
“The Duke ball we use at home and the Kookaburras abroad are two very different balls but when we were in Australia two years ago we did swing the ball sideways. Occasionally the particular ball doesn’t swing but over two Tests you’d have thought we would have swung it more than we did. That is something the bowlers and David Saker [the bowling coach] are going to have to get on to.”
The quicker the better. There is just a hint that England are obsessed with reverse swing (though there was no hint of it in this series) which is mightily effective, at the expense of the conventional variety. In the two matches in which they failed with the bat, in Dunedin and Auckland, they failed to swing the ball. The combination added up to a whole heap of problems which they have to eradicate quickly or face serious consequences.
There were two significant injuries to senior players. If anything, the tourists missed Graeme Swann more than they did Kevin Pietersen. While Pietersen plays great, match-turning innings, Swann is a high-class spinner whose Jack the Lad approach to life conceals a formidable cricketing brain. Nous is important in Test cricket.
A fascinating aspect of the whole winter’s cricket, before Christmas and after it, has been to watch the evolution of Alastair Cook as the Test captain. It was always known when he was appointed that he was a work in progress, having barely done the job for any team before.
In India, he was outstanding, calm, composed, patient, as England came from 1-0 down to win one of their greatest series. In New Zealand he did not emerge with distinction from the comparison with his more pro-active counterpart, Brendon McCullum.
Flower said: “I thought Alastair did a great job in India operating with two spinners. There are occasions where captains who aren’t used to that don’t do it very skilfully and I thought he did that very well in India.
“That shows his capacity for adaptation and quick learning. He watched what the opposition were doing and tactically he was excellent. Out here, part of the challenge for him was the bowlers weren’t moving the ball. He tinkered with fields, he tinkered with tactics. However, they were well answered by the New Zealand batsmen.”
It was always the case that Cook would need to learn on the job and that he would sometimes look the raw novice he is. That is probably the lot of most, if not all England captains of the future.
Where once they had time to learn, probably by being captain of their county for a couple of years, now they are involved in the England establishment for so long that they never have the chance to learn one of the most important aspects of the game. Cook is showing a real appetite for it, as one might expect.
“He is interested in dealing with people, he is very empathetic with his team mates, even with the management team,” said Flower. “He is interested in learning about people and how to communicate with them, how to get the best out of people that he’s working with.
“He asks questions tactically. He doesn’t have an ego that is too large that he wouldn’t question his performance and his decision making which all bodes really well for his future and the England cricket team’s future. He’s got enough courage to take chances.”
Flower’s relationship with his vice-captain, Matt Prior will be fascinating as it takes root in the next year or so. Flower would not quite confirm Prior’s continuation in the role but said it was likely he would again be vice-captain in the summer.
Prior has taken to it with glee and zest. Although Flower disagreed instinctively, there have been times on the field when it has looked as though Prior has been directing operations, moving fielders, shouting encouragement, almost as if he was the captain.
“I don’t see that at all,” said Flower. “But he has got an important role as vice-captain. One of the advantages to having your wicketkeeper as vice-captain is that he can see the angles properly, so he would tinker with the field quite a lot.
“Even if he wasn’t vice captain he should be doing that. The other thing is when you’re behind the stumps you can see whether the ball is swinging, and you can see a lot about the opposition batsmen.”
Prior has become a consummate cricketer and his match and series-saving century – allied to Ian Bell’s innings of 75 from 271 balls and Stuart Broad’s six from 77 – was the work of such. It might have eventually depended on the ball grazing the stumps but failing to dislodge the bails early on but he deserved that. He can be cut a lot of slack and he is perhaps the team’s most significant player now, the fulcrum on which everything else is balanced. But Cook is the captain.
“It’s all very well discussing things off the field but usually the guys on the field have the best take on what is happening,” said Flower.
“They can look into the eyes of the opposition batsmen who they are walking past all the time, they get a better read on body language, Matt Prior understands from behind the stumps exactly what the ball is doing so his fellow players have a big role in working with Cook as well.
“We have all learned from this Test series and Alastair will be no different in that regard. He is learning just like we all are. He’s a young man learning the art of captaincy, he’s really excited about it, he loves the challenge. That is one of the skills a captain has to have. You want options suggested to you and then it is your choice what to do with those.”
Given what lies ahead – New Zealand, that is, of course – it is as well that Cook took over when he did.
16-20 May New Zealand (Lord’s)
24-28 May New Zealand (H’dingley)
10-14 July Australia (Trent Bridge)
18-22 July Australia (Lord’s)
1-5 Aug Australia (Old Trafford)
9-13 Aug Australia (Durham)
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