Bring on the Ashes? Not so fast. England still have work to do

After six straight victories, the Test side are on a high. But there are concerns to address this summer, argues Stephen Brenkley
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The Independent Online

Cook's fragile form

For England to retain the Ashes this winter it is crucial that they are not forever having to rebuild the innings. The new ball must be seen off more often than not.

At present, neither Andrew Strauss nor Alastair Cook is in prime nick. Strauss scored 53 not out and finished off the Edgbaston Test, but the streaky single with which he did so embodied an innings in which he was dropped three times. Since the end of last summer, Strauss averages 36, the lowest among all England batsmen.

Cook is having a bad run and the time has not come – yet – to ditch all that gritty experience, but 100 runs in seven innings is not what the coach ordered. Since the end of the 2009 Ashes, Cook and Strauss have opened together in 14 innings, in eight of which they have put on 25 or below.

Broad's discipline

This covers a multitude of elements: the discipline of adhering to clearly delineated strategies; the need to continue to do the ordinary things well; the simple requirement to stay within the bounds of reasonable behaviour.

There is no doubting that England merited their win in the second Test at Edgbaston because they were the better team who took greater advantage of the conditions. But it was disappointing to watch their response when Pakistan began to edge their way back into the match on the third afternoon.

This happens in Test matches played over 15 sessions and briefly England were ill-equipped to cope. If they think a rookie Pakistan wicketkeeper playing his maiden Test is a tough cookie (and Zulqarnain Haider was admirable) they ain't seen nothin' yet, baby. Wait for Brisbane in November and they will know what Test match toughness is.

If there was dispiriting lack of resolve (and perhaps respect for their opponents), much of the attention understandably has been devoted to Stuart Broad, who erred once too often when things were not going his way and was subsequently fined half his match fee. Broad has undoubted talent with a fierce will, but this must not descend into uncontrolled petulance, as it did when he threw the ball at Zulqarnain.

The Pietersen factor

It would not be Wednesday today if there were not something about Kevin (or Thursday tomorrow, come to that). His disjointed 80 in England's first innings at Edgbaston was more welcome in terms of aggregate than method. But he saw it through.

There is, however, always something about Kevin. He is now without a county (Hampshire have refused to play him in their team on Twenty20 Finals Day on Saturday, although he is nominally still under contract) and there is no sign of any side rushing to recruit him.

There is also an unsubstantiated notion that Pietersen is not preparing as assiduously as once he did – though England's coach, Andy Flower, has dismissed this. But it could be suggested that he did not make enough attempts to get a game in the gap before the first Test of this series. The lack of a club is a distraction neither Pietersen nor England can properly tolerate.

Out of the swing?

It has been an unalloyed pleasure to watch Jimmy Anderson execute his enviable skills in the first two Tests of the series. He is a master manipulator and the ball with which he dismissed Pakistan's captain, Salman Butt, in the second innings at Edgbaston, starting on leg and removing off stump, was every bit as devilish as Graeme Swann's much heralded wonder ball the next day.

But it was instructive to hear an England follower say on Sunday night: "He will get slaughtered in Australia." And there is the rub. From November onwards, Anderson will be working with conditions where the ball will not swing much for long and where pitches will not grant many favours. He will recall this past fortnight then with the longing of a boy remembering his first love.

Anderson played his 50th Test match in Birmingham. Of those, 31 have been at home in which he has taken 129 wickets at 27.34, 19 have been abroad in which he has 52 at 43.85 and needed seven more overs each to take them. England have sometimes toyed with Pakistan this past fortnight, but it will not always be like that.

Ponting: the nemesis awaits

It is always worth noting that Ricky Ponting is the only Australian captain to have lost the Ashes twice and survived – and equally important that the first time he lost them he regained them by leading his side to a 5-0 triumph.

Captain Ponting is without question under duress. The recent 1-1 draw with Pakistan in this country did him no favours. But he is one of the most obdurate characters in a country full of them, and brimful of talent. England's biggest potential mistake would be to assume that Ponting is over the hill. On his own pitches he may have one more great series in him.