Ashes in the bag, next stop the world
Winning in Australia is unforgettable but it is not the Holy Grail. England can become the best Test team on the planet – and win the World Cup while they're at it
Sunday 02 January 2011
How did England win the Ashes?
Strictly speaking, despite the apparent national outpouring of jubilation, they have not won them. As the holders they have retained the urn (not that it moves from Lord's except under lock and key if MCC are in the mood and have a retinue of minders to guard it) by taking a 2-1 lead in the series with a match to play.
But England have come this far with a combination of planning, players approaching the right time in their careers and Australian pitches playing into their hands sufficiently to mean that four bowlers were enough to take 20 wickets. England will be surprised at the ease with which they have taken that many Australian wickets, three times in this series. And never before have they twice won by an innings in an Ashes series here.
The bowling unit has worked well in two ways. First, it has operated in alien conditions; harder, as the captain Andrew Strauss pointed out yesterday, than in 2005 when a potent five-man attack was largely responsible for regaining the Ashes in England.
Secondly, it has taken two attacks: Stuart Broad and Steve Finn, who played in the first of the two victories in Adelaide, having been replaced by Chris Tremlett and Tim Bresnan for the second win in Melbourne.
Depth is important and Strauss mentioned the presence on the sidelines of Ajmal Shahzad and Graham Onions, for whom England still nurse considerable hopes.
But it has also been vital that in the two victories, England have compiled first innings of 620 for 5 and 513. It is in the first innings that the course of so many Tests is set firm. In 10 of their 14 victories since the start of the 2009 home season, England have scored more than 400 in the first innings, in six of them above 500. And it is this above all they must do more of.
Is the Ashes all there is?
The Ashes, make no mistake, is the cornerstone of English cricket. Have them in your back pocket and it provides fuel for a spring in the step. However, the mind goes back to David Gower at The Oval in 1985 after his side had thumped Australia that summer. Knowing what was to come that winter, Gower genially said that he presumed West Indies were quaking in their boots.
In some ways – but only some – India are England's West Indies now. No 1 in the world in both forms of the game, India stand between England and their aspiration. They do not possess West Indies' great pace attack but they have a supreme batting line-up. So Strauss's side will have a clearer idea of where they stand when India come to town this summer.
It should be emphasised that Australia, while a long way from the side that dominated the world for 15 years, are far from a doddle in their own country. It has taken hard work and not a little skill.
So can England be No 1 in the world?
Yes they can, and Strauss and the coach, Andy Flower, think so too. And they are not men to make hollow promises. The groundwork has now been done, a template created for success. This revolves around fitness, a commodity which every player is expected to have. England's fielding has been excellent throughout this Ashes series and people who generally let games of cricket pass them by have remarked on it.
This has led indirectly to encouraging belief in the other disciplines. Bowling as a unit helps. A perfect example of this was at Melbourne on the third afternoon when Graeme Swann, never a man to let a wicket-taking opportunity pass him by, bowled one of his very best spells in Test cricket. In it he only took one wicket – the important one of Michael Clarke with a smart piece of round-the-wicket bowling – but he conceded only 23 runs in 22 overs, simply refusing to let the batsmen get off strike, instilling doubts and doing immense favours for the chaps at the other end.
In the batting line-up, the first-wicket pair of Strauss and Alastair Cook have taken their liaison a stage further. Cook has been a revelation, Strauss has put the cares of captaincy to one side.
Jonathan Trott's resolute adhesiveness at No 3 has compounded many elements of their strategy. Ian Bell is too low at No 6, but the No 3 spot which was his for the taking is now gone. A No 4 and No 5 of Kevin Pietersen and Bell has many attractions in the short to mid-term for England.
What about the World Cup?
That has been at the back of the strategists' minds throughout the winter. If it was anywhere else but the sub-continent, England would go as one of the favourites. But the heat, pitches and tempo make it a very different proposition and India at home may be irresistible. But England have made such great strides (in fielding especially, which is India's weak suit) and gained such confidence from their magnificent World Twenty20 win, going away from the rest, that anything is possible. The group match in Kolkata between India and England on 27 February will be an indication of how far England have come.
Different conditions, different mindset but the imminent seven-match series against Australia will enable England to cement plans.
Have the backroom staff been important?
Absolutely. And once more, it is a case of all knowing what their job entails and then getting on with it. They have helped make better cricketers, to add the one per cent here and two per cent there which can make a difference and – as significantly – cricketers think it can make such a difference.
England are fitter, stronger and have more stamina than before. Their plans are more detailed and in Strauss they have a man of patience and pragmatism who is prepared to stick with them. Not a tactical genius, they say, but not many have guided England to Ashes success in Australia.
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