England believe they can win the Ashes. Such innocent faith is understandable, probably obligatory, almost touching, but there are also folk who insist that the 80-year-old Elvis Presley is still circling the earth in a spaceship before coming back among us.
Here are a team who have prevailed in only one of their last five Test series. They have lost two and drawn two and defeated an India side last summer who thought that turning up was competing.
The disappointment of going ahead against their two most recent opponents, then being pulled back, simply exacerbated the shortcomings of a side unsure of their own status – despite what they say. It was no disgrace to draw 1-1 with a vibrant New Zealand determined to play it their way but England’s response was worryingly confused. Too many players did not know whether to stick or twist and ended up as a busted flush.
The Ashes begin in a little under five weeks. While the gap is being filled with a one-day series against the Kiwis, which is likely to be a learning curve rather than a victory march, most of the attention will focus on what is likely to happen from July onwards.
This may not be entirely fair but it is the case. If, for instance, England manage to beat New Zealand in the one-day series it is impossible to imagine anyone offering that as viable compensation if they were then to be hammered by Australia.
A reasonable guide to England’s prospects, in addition to assessing their own recent Test form, may emerge in the next fortnight as Australia play West Indies in the Caribbean. This is largely a honing exercise for Australia so that they land here match-fit.
England were held to a drawn Test series against West Indies recently after taking a 1-0 lead, which should have been 2-0 and seemingly having the opposition by the throat. If Australia now dismantle West Indies in both matches it would not say a great deal for England’s chances in July and August. On the other hand, if West Indies make a fist of it, then opinions may change quickly.
It is clear even now that Australia are not infallible, bearing scant comparison with their great sides spanning the Nineties and Noughties. But England are an incomplete bunch, anxiously trying to come to terms with the demands and fickleness of Test cricket.
The two-match series against New Zealand was a measure of their inability to complete the job and their weakness under determined assault with bat and ball. It affected a crucial extra dimension of their game so that their catching, especially in the slip cordon, became unreliable.
Paul Farbrace, their coach before the arrival of Trevor Bayliss, recognises what went wrong but perhaps not how. “When you get in a position when you are on top you have to make it count,” he said. “We haven’t quite done that, we seem to slip off the gas a little bit and let the opposition back in.”
Farbrace has been having regular phone chats with Bayliss, who had an influence on the composition of the one-day squad – probably more with regard to who was not in it than who was. Bayliss has also suggested how England might approach their one-day duties.
From the way Farbrace spoke, it seems England will retain those Test players who are out of form – notably Gary Ballance, Ian Bell and Moeen Ali. This is the correct policy for now but it is also perhaps an admission that there is not a long queue for their places.
Mike Hesson, the New Zealand coach, who has plotted the fearless style of cricket which helped them win the second Investec Test by 199 runs to level the series, sprang to England’s defence yesterday. Crucially, he thought they might have something to offer come the Ashes.
“I think it’s very hard for all 11 players to be performing at any one time,” he said. “We’ve certainly found that at home, the media tend to go round in circles in terms of the guys they attack. It’s very difficult for everyone to score runs. Alastair Cook is in fine form at the moment and I’m sure Gary Ballance and Ian Bell will have plenty of runs round the corner.
“Moeen was outstanding last year. I think he has had a side strain. It takes a while to come back and he’s certainly going to need some overs, so I think the idea of returning to county cricket is a good one. He puts a lot of revolutions on the ball, he drifts it, and he gets good players out. I think he’s got some qualities, I think they just need to stick with him for a bit.”
With that, it was suddenly possible to imagine Cook hoisting the urn aloft at The Oval in August before Presley appears alongside him singing “Hound Dog”.Reuse content