England must find the killer touch

After four series without victory, Hussain's men have some hard lessons to learn
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The Independent Online

England's young players have learnt many things this winter, but not yet how to close the deal. Test matches can be won by beating an opponent on the day, but winning series require a level of consistency as yet beyond Nasser Hussain's side.

Whether Darren Gough or possibly Alec Stewart will improve that depends on how much the wonderful team spirit, dented only recently by the tragic death of Ben Hollioake, is affected if and when the prodigals return.

England have gone four series now without a win. Next summer's, against Sri Lanka and India, will be on familiar territory, but Duncan Fletcher's claim yesterday, that the extremes of playing in India then New Zealand made it difficult for many in his team, does not ring true.

If the England coach believes he has a point, it can only be because his players barely play county cricket anymore, where the pitches are every bit as fruity as the ones in this series. They can hardly claim inexperience either, as Hussain did in the post-match press conference, at least not against New Zealand, whose second-string pace attack rarely had more than 10 caps between them.

Introducing youngsters can be a messy business and that contributed to the series being error-strewn on both sides. The fielding and umpiring were especially poor. But if the latter might yet be improved by the increased use of television technology, turning players into better catchers, when teams already practice hard, will be far more difficult.

Perhaps catching, like defensive batting, relies on minds being relaxed and focused – a rarity in modern cricket. Adam Parore, the 78-Test veteran who dropped as many chances in the series as James Foster, believes the outbreaks of floored catches to have been down to the light at this time of year. "It has a soft milky quality that allows little perspective," he said, no doubt confusing it with the tears that formed when he bade farewell to 12 years of Test cricket in front of his home crowd.

Foster, who like Parore has begun his career young, would do well to study the former New Zealand keeper's career. For one thing, both are probably better batsmen than glovemen, though Foster can improve that by working with a specialist coach. The England and Wales Cricket Board got rid of Alan Knott, who worked with Jack Russell and Alec Stewart, on grounds of cost.

Blessed with an impressive spirit that he can calm when the pressure is on, Foster's glaring weakness appears to be catches going to his left. Confidence, concentration and relaxed hands are the key and, this winter, Foster has probably had problems with all three. He should be persevered with this summer, even in the one-dayers. Bring Stewart back for next year's World Cup by all means, but only after Foster has been given the summer to improve.

Fatigue will have been an unavoidable problem for most of the squad, especially for Matthew Hoggard, Andrew Flintoff and Foster. This has not been a gentle blooding for any of them and none can have experienced the sheer workload, plus all the travelling and training, each has got through since October.

With eight of the 11 players used in the Tests here involved in every series, including the one-dayers since early November, even the veterans have looked tired.

If tours are slightly shorter than they used to be, the amount of high-pressure cricket is more concentrated now. Mental weariness, compounded recently by the emotional upheaval surrounding Ben Hollioake's death, will have taken its toll despite the momentum gained by the win in Christchurch.

It was there, after Nathan Astle's astounding double hundred made in a losing cause, that England's bowlers should have learnt an important lesson. They did not and when Astle did it to them again in the final Test in Auckland, this time with a quickfire fifty, it more or less cost them the game.

The series averages make interesting reading. Graham Thorpe headed the batting averages with 274 runs at 68.5, though his double hundred at Christchurch was made on the most benign pitch of the series. Far more valuable were Hussain's 280 runs, of which the three biggest scores, 106, 66 and 82, were made when conditions were at their trickiest.

Everything else with the bat, Flintoff's maiden century in the first Test and his quickfire 75 in the second excepted, was disappointing, particularly the offerings from Mark Ramprakash and Michael Vaughan.

Opening the batting regularly for the first time, Vaughan did have to contend with some tricky batting conditions, especially against the new ball. Ramprakash's excuse was not so obvious, and his decision to be positive on the juicy surfaces often bordered on the kamikaze. Once again he returns with a question mark next to his name.

With 19 wickets at 19.3, Andrew Caddick shone throughout, but rarely in both innings of the same match. His reputation for taking more wickets per balls bowled in the second innings of matches was not founded except in his home town of Christchurch, where he took 6 for 122. After that, he appeared to run out of steam in the second, with 6 for 63 and 4 for 70 coming in the first innings in Wellington and Auckland respectively.

England missed Gough's mercurial touch and, hard though Hoggard and Flintoff strived, neither has the range of deliveries, even on waspish pitches, needed to break stubborn partnerships at this level.

Their unbridled effort cannot be questioned and with unfit players no longer tolerated, as James Ormond found to his cost (he would have been unplayable on some of the pitches), this was a side that tried hard, but ultimately lacked the nous to finish opponents off.