Class of 2004 had better balance but this England team can achieve more
Strauss's charges are a work in progress with dreams of becoming the finished article
Sunday 15 August 2010
The last time that England won six consecutive Test matches, victory number seven quickly became a formality. They went to The Oval on 19 August 2004 and trounced West Indies by 10 wickets inside three days to strengthen the impression that a team to beat Australia was taking shape.
History seems likely to repeat itself in south London, starting on Wednesday. True, Pakistan finally put up a bit of resistance at Edgbaston last week before being soundly beaten, and they should have their most accomplished batsman, Mohammad Yousuf, restored to the middle order for round three of the four-match series. But England are odds-on favourites to keep heading in the right direction by securing a seventh straight triumph.
That would still leave time this summer for Andrew Strauss's side to extend their sequence of success to eight consecutive victories, thereby equalling the England record that was achieved in 2004. And hey, why stop there? Launch this winter's Ashes series with a win in Brisbane towards the end of November and it will be nine in a row.
Anyone mentioning all that to captain Strauss or coach Andy Flower this week is likely to be given short shrift, however. England's players no doubt think about the Australian challenge in those quieter moments – and their bowlers are about to start practising with the Kookaburra balls used Down Under – but do not expect serious Ashes talk from the two top men until this international season is done and dusted.
Happily, though, the rest of us can look ahead whenever we want. And, for that matter, look back in order to compare Strauss's class of 2010 with the team of 2004, and try to work out where they go from here.
The biggest difference, of course, is that whereas Michael Vaughan and Duncan Fletcher were still almost a year away from Ashes conflict when they achieved a seventh straight victory, Strauss and Flower have only three months or so to play with. But there was time then to make changes to the team, and there is still an opportunity now to tinker with the England machine before Brisbane, should the need arise.
Of the 2004 side that achieved a sixth win on the bounce by defeating West Indies by seven wickets at Old Trafford, three members were not to figure in the following summer's Ashes triumph: Robert Key (replaced by Ian Bell), James Anderson (who lost out to Simon Jones) and, incredible though it would have seemed at the time, Graham Thorpe (whose spot went to a man who was still qualifying for England six years ago, Kevin Pietersen).
Bell would struggle against Australia but Jones and Pietersen played key roles in toppling the world champions. And perhaps the same will happen again this time, with someone like Michael Carberry or Ajmal Shahzad bursting through at the last minute to make a mighty impression on international cricket's oldest contest.
For the moment, though, it is interesting to measure the team of 2010 against the one that walloped New Zealand and West Indies in 2004. And while marks may vary by a point or two here and there, depending on who is awarding them, most observers would agree, surely, that Strauss's current set still have ground to make up on their record-chasing predecessors.
Strauss is one of only two players to appear in both classes (the other being Anderson). And although the Middlesex man made a wonderful start to his Test career by scoring a century on debut at Lord's in 2004, he had played only six matches by the time England headed for The Oval. Strauss may not be in the same rich vein of form six years later, but throw in all the experience gained along the way and most would prefer the proven 2010 model.
There is little to choose between Marcus Trescothick's record then and Alastair Cook's right now, with both averaging a shade below 43. But while Trescothick was on the rise again after a fallow period, Cook has looked all at sea this summer and must fear for his Ashes place, despite the reassuring words coming from Strauss and Flower.
If Cook continues to falter then Jonathan Trott could move up a place. Like Key in 2004, he already has a Test double century to his name (Key's was against West Indies, Trott's was taken off Bangladesh) but, wherever he bats, this No 3 seems unlikely to fade from the picture as quickly as the Kent captain, who has fallen down the pecking order.
It is in the middle order, though, that the team of 2004 really score over the current side. Vaughan was batting like a prince despite early signs of the knee problem that would eventually end his career; Thorpe played majestically all summer until breaking a finger at Old Trafford; and Andrew Flintoff was finally the all-rounder of England's dreams, making big runs on a regular basis and taking wickets like a strike bowler.
With Kevin Pietersen having mislaid his confidence, and despite the reliability of Paul Collingwood plus the obvious (but very early) promise of Eoin Morgan, 2004 wins hands down from Nos 4 to 6.
Strauss's team close the gap through Matt Prior, who is ahead of Geraint Jones on both sides of the stumps, the world-class spinner Graeme Swann – important though Ashley Giles was to the success of six years ago – and Anderson, who is considerably better than his younger self even if doubts persist about his effectiveness when the ball does not swing.
But Matthew Hoggard just edges Stuart Broad, especially now the latter's batting has ceased to become a factor, while Steve Harmison – briefly the world's No 1 bowler in 2004 – was a fearsome sight for opponents. Steven Finn could get to the top of the tree, but at present he is just an apprentice.
With little to choose in the fielding department (Flintoff, Trescothick and Giles were terrific close-to-the- wicket catchers), the biggest difference between the two sides is best summed up in a word: balance. Flintoff was the fifth bowler – though often the first, in terms of importance – that this current England team simply cannot accommodate without sacrificing a specialist batsman.
It could be that Strauss will be forced to promote Prior to No 6 at some stage this winter in order to play an extra bowler. But while that is a worrying thought, there is one particularly good reason for believing the class of 2010 can achieve more than the set of six years ago.
Far from going from strength to strength, Vaughan's team fell apart all too quickly because of injuries, illness and, in some cases, a horrible loss of form. Today's side, or at least the bulk of them, could well be together for another five years, given reasonable luck. And that is plenty of time for a work in progress to become the finished, and highly polished, article.
Class of 2004 v Class of 2010
The last time England won six Tests in a row was 2004 (on their way to a record eight). Then, as now, the next match was at The Oval. Here we compare the 2004 model with the 2010 vintage.
England's six in a row, 2004
beat New Zealand by 7 wickets (Lord's)
beat New Zealand by 9 wickets (Headingley)
beat New Zealand by 4 wickets (Trent Bridge)
beat West Indies by 210 runs (Lord's)
beat West Indies by 256 runs (Edgbaston)
beat West Indies by 7 wickets (Old Trafford)
Six in a row, 2010
beat Bangladesh by 181 runs (Chittagong)
beat Bangladesh by 9 wickets (Dhaka)
beat Bangladesh by 8 wickets (Lord's)
beat Bangladesh by innings and 80 runs (Old Trafford)
beat Pakistan by 354 runs (Trent Bridge)
beat Pakistan by 9 wickets (Edgbaston)
Marks out of 10 for the Six-on-the-Bounce Boys
Andrew Strauss 7 Brilliant start to Test career with two tons in four Tests. But will it last?
Marcus Trescothick 8 Just about at the peak of his powers, and no hint that stress would bring him down.
Robert Key 6 Scored 221 against West Indies at Lord's but not enough nose to the grindstone for the then coach Duncan Fletcher's liking.
Michael Vaughan 9 Hit twin hundreds against the Windies at Lord's and looked as good as any batsman in the world.
Graham Thorpe 9 The rock in England's middle-order. Never flashy but so reliable. Looked a certainty for the 2005 Ashes.
Andrew Flintoff 9 The hitter had become a proper player, and the sometimes reluctant bowler was Vaughan's go-to man.
Geraint Jones 7 Far from certain with the gloves in 2004 but just the counterattacking batsman England wanted at No 7.
Ashley Giles 7 Underrated by many, but not by Vaughan. Terrific team man, whether bowling, batting or fielding.
Matthew Hoggard 8 Swing bowler who could look innocuous in unhelpful conditions. But had wonderful days and very few shockers.
Steve Harmison 9 The world's No 1 bowler during 2004. He was at his fittest, fastest and most menacing that year.
James Anderson 6 Bowling had become hard work for the shooting star of 2003. Would he end up back in Burnley seconds?
Andrew Strauss 8 Has not been at the top of his game this summer but a more complete batsman than the 2004 model.
Alastair Cook 7 Tough times for an opening batsman whose feet look set in concrete. One innings could set him free.
Jonathan Trott 7 Unlikely to set too many pulses racing. But a reassuring figure more interested in how many than how made.
Kevin Pietersen 8 Lost the captaincy and almost lost the plot as a batsman. Scrubby 80 at Edgbaston may have put him right.
Paul Collingwood 8 Eureka! Colly is no longer anyone's favourite to be dropped. Real progress for a bloke used to life on the edge.
Eoin Morgan 6 One-day star who made a wonderful Test hundred against Pakistan last month. Great talent but early days.
Matthew Prior 8 No one is talking about his keeping at the moment, which is a triumph. And a terrific century two matches ago.
Graeme Swann 9 What a couple of years he has had. Deservedly No 3 among the world's Test bowlers, and getting better.
Stuart Broad 7 Can be an England bowler for years to come. Just needs to keep that temper in check.
Steven Finn 6 Great start to his Test career. He has got the lot – height, pace, temperament – but these are early days.
James Anderson 8 On fire this summer but knows he needs a big tour of Australia this winter to convince the doubters.
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