Ashes 2015: England home in on record but big test will come away

There is no doubt England have surprised themselves this summer

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The Independent Online

England have been here before. Two years ago they arrived at The Oval with an opportunity to win four Tests of an Ashes series at home for the first time. Now, here the two teams are again, with the same captains in subtly different circumstances.

After Michael Clarke’s challenging declaration in 2013, England might have succeeded had not bad light intervened. But then Clarke had points to make and another Ashes series to play in Australia a few weeks hence. He wanted, nay he needed, to be bold.

But it is difficult to contemplate that Clarke will offer his counterpart, Alastair Cook, a similar opportunity. This is Clarke’s last match as a professional cricketer, there are no more innings to play, no more raging against the dying of the playing light to be done. The Ashes are lost, as they were last time when England were already 3-0 ahead, but he cannot wish to be remembered as the man who went down in his final match in pursuit of victory. No one could blame him for going against his natural instincts.

Cook’s team may have to create their own chances, and the most striking possibility of doing that may come from having a surface similar to those on which they have earned their two most recent wins – rewarding the diligence, endeavour and skills of bowlers and batsmen. If Australia win in those circumstances then so be it.

 

In the heady days since the breathtaking win at Trent Bridge, England’s players have had a little breather to assess what it all means. There are several factors, the first of which, perhaps, is that they are no longer pariahs. Steve Finn, the revived fast bowler who has been part of an Ashes-winning side for the third time but the first in which he has played in the decisive match, noticed the change in attitude. “Just walking up and down the street, doing the shopping over the last couple of days, people stop you and say ‘we’re proud of you’, and it’s lovely considering where we were when we came back from that World Cup,” he said.

“People were embarrassed to be associated with England or to be supporters of English cricket. That’s what going out there and doing it is all about – we go out there for ourselves and the team obviously, but we do it for the wider perspective and other people as well. Six months ago no one stopped me, no one said hello, other than people hanging off scaffolding abusing me!”

Finn was joking about men on building sites but it has been a sensational reversal of fortune by England. This leaves them with another conundrum, which starts at The Oval on Thursday and continues soon with tours to the UAE, to play Pakistan, and to South Africa. Both are worrying assignments against opponents extremely disobliged to lose at home (in the past 10 years, only one country has won in both South Africa and against Pakistan in their nine series in the UAE – Australia in both cases).

There is no doubt that England have surprised themselves with their achievements this summer after a permanently fluctuating year. Now here they are as Ashes winners and all that entails in history. Finn had a warning for those who expect too much – which seemed to be directed at his colleagues as well as the suddenly fawning public.

“We have exciting players in the dressing room but it is important that we don’t get ahead of ourselves,” he said. “We have got ahead of ourselves before. When we got to No 1 in the world I think we started looking too far beyond that, and that cost us in my opinion.

“We started to think about legacies and things like that and I am not comfortable with that sort of thing. Why we have done so well and won people back to cricket this summer is we have taken every day as it comes, we have played with smiles on our faces and it’s brought the best out of us. If we start talking about anything beyond that it could prove detrimental to what we are doing at the moment. That would be a bad thing.”

This is an admirable view which, if Cook can persuade the rest to adopt, should serve England well. Finn is correct at this juncture to point out the exciting players – Ben Stokes, Joe Root, Finn himself – but there are worrying deficiencies.

Moeen Ali owes the side nothing as a batsman and is mounting a persuasive case to be considered as the most accomplished No 8 in Tests. But he is in the side also as the side’s spinner and has been much less convincing. At present he does not look like an off-break bowler who will lead England to dominance in the UAE, something that eluded Graeme Swann on England’s last visit in 2012.

Until the rains came to affect pitch preparation, England might have thought of asking Adil Rashid to play his maiden Test at The Oval. That is now improbable, since they are hardly likely to field two spinners – despite the occasionally expressed wishes of the coach, Trevor Bayliss – and can hardly omit Moeen.

The other glaring weakness throughout the series has been the form of Adam Lyth, struggling to impose himself by playing his own game at this rarefied level. It would be harsh but understandable to drop him now and those suggesting that Moeen could be promoted as Cook’s opening partner may be overlooking the fact that he has done it precisely never in a first-class match for Worcestershire.

A more pertinent discussion among the selectors may concern the fast bowlers. If Jimmy Anderson is fit after his side strain, the selectors will have to decide whether to leave out Finn or Mark Wood, who took the wicket that secured the Ashes. Much as they will want Anderson, to offer the best shot at 4-0, they will have no wish to push their luck with a 33-year-old swing bowler’s body. It may be premature to talk of legacies but not of the UAE and South Africa.

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