As a warm up for the sterner and more meaningful challenges that lie ahead against South Africa, Zimbabwe have proved to be perfect opponents for England. Two three-day victories over a weak and luckless side have not only boosted confidence, but provided young players with a gentle introduction to Test cricket. James Anderson, Anthony McGrath and Richard Johnson will each have left County Durham believing they can perform at the highest level - even if it is not where they have been playing for the past fortnight - and this is half the challenge when taking the large step up.
Batting against the tourists, with the exception of Heath Streak, has been a pleasant, less than daunting experience. Those with a point to prove, or form to regain, had the ideal stage on which to do it.
For England's inexperienced bowlers, the exercise was just as cordial. Through failing to have a batsman capable of taking England apart, Zimbabwe were never going to control proceedings. This allowed the bowlers and Nasser Hussain to remain in charge. That no player had the resources to bat for a day also helped. It meant these young bowlers were not tested physically or mentally. This will come, but the hard times are easier to take if you have some success to draw on.
After such practice now would be an opportune time for Hussain's side to take on South Africa in the first of five Tests. Instead England's victorious squad will have to wait six weeks before they switch their minds back to Test match mode. During this period, under Michael Vaughan, England will play a minimum of 10 one-day internationals against Pakistan, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Success will do no harm to those playing in both forms of the game, but, by the time Hussain takes control on 21 July, the victory will be nothing more than a distant memory.
The squad which assembles at Edgbaston could be somewhat different too. By then England's three most experienced fast-bowlers could be fit. The return to health of Andrew Caddick, Darren Gough and Matthew Hoggard is sure to cause animated discussion among the selectors. It is a problem they should enjoy because having a large pool of fast-bowling talent to draw on is not something England have been able to boast about for quite some time.
The situation has not been lost on the England coach, Duncan Fletcher. "I think selection is going to be very difficult from here on in with these guys [Caddick, Gough and Hoggard)] coming back," he said. "When they return we will have some problems but we want to build on the pool of players we have, especially in the bowling department. It is important we have some players sitting in the wings who have some experience."
England have the choice of either continuing with youth, returning to experience or having an attack which has a combination of the two.
"It could become a policy decision," said Fletcher. "We will have to sit down and look at the situation and decide how important the win is. The one-day series will show us whether we are ahead of the pack, but it is going to be very, very difficult to get this balance right."
Fletcher suggested some rotation could exist because of the desire to rest and manage properly a bowler such as Anderson.
Assessing just how well England's attack performed against such a poor batting line-up is difficult. On Friday it was the ability to bowl full and straight that caused Zimbabwe to collapse. A better indication of the bowlers' character came on Saturday during the second innings. Then the visitors showed a bit more backbone. There was no less effort from any of the bowlers, but it was Anderson who stood out. He may have taken five wickets on debut at Lord's, but in the morning session the 20-year-old bowled his best spell for England yet.
The advantage Anderson has over Harmison and Johnson is that by moving the ball away he can attack both edges of the bat. This is vital against quality players. It is a skill Johnson has developed at Somerset, but it failed to show itself in the North-East and was why he looked less effective during the second innings.
When you possess the pace and bounce of Harmison such control is not as important, although it would add an extra dimension to his game. His ability to terrorise his opponents worked and the four wickets he took were a result of this.
It was fitting he took the last wicket in front of a full house at his home ground on its Test debut. The experiment by the England and Wales Cricket Board in appointing a new Test venue worked despite disappointing crowds on the first two days. It was a refreshing experience, one that should be repeated again soon.
The next six weeks will be strange for Hussain. For the first time since the summer of 1999 he will not be directly involved with the running of the side. His wealth of knowledge will not be wasted, however. "Nasser has got a magnificent cricket brain," said Fletcher. "I intend to have a lot of contact with him. It is important that we have players recently involved with the side on the outside looking in because sometimes we do have times when we get blinkers on."
Fletcher does not feel the involvement of the former captain will interfere with Vaughan. "All captains have to listen to advice," he said. "If you run away and think you know this game you are going to come short."
Third day; England won toss
ENGLAND - First Innings 416 (A McGrath 81, A J Stewart 68, A F Giles 50; H H Streak 4-64).
ZIMBABWE - First Innings 94 (R L Johnson 6-33).
ZIMBABWE - Second innings (Friday 41 for 1)
D D Ebrahim lbw b Harmison 55
S V Carlisle c Key b Anderson 28
G W Flower b Anderson 16
ÝT Taibu c Butcher b Giles 14
S M Ervine b Harmison 34
T J Friend not out 65
*H H Streak run out 3
A M Blignaut c Hussain b Anderson 12
R W Price c Stewart b Harmison 6
D T Hondo b Harmison 4
Extras (b6, lb10) 16
Total (360 min, 93.4 overs) 253
Fall (cont): 2-65 (Carlisle), 3-102 (Ebrahim), 4-113 (Flower), 5-131 (Taibu), 6-185 (Ervine), 7-202 (Streak), 8-223 (Blignaut), 9-244 (Price).
Bowling: Anderson 23-8-55-4 (4-0-18-1, 7-4-9-1, 6-3-8-1, 5-1-16-1, 1-0-4-0); Johnson 22-7-67-0 (5-4-1-0, 3-0-11-0, 4-1-14-0, 4-1-10-0, 3-1-16-0, 3-0-15-0); Harmison 21.4-4-55-4 (4-0-11-0, 4-0-11-0, 4-1-4-1, 1-0-5-0, 7-3-18-1, 1-0-1-1, 0.4-0-5-1); Giles 25-9-51-1 (2-0-11-0, 6-4-6-0, 14-3-29-1, 3-2-5-0); Butcher 2-0-9-0 (one spell).
Progress: Third day: 50: 64 min, 17 overs. 100: 139 min, 35 overs. Lunch: 113-3 (Flower 16, Taibu 8) 46 overs. 150: 242 min, 62.1 overs. 200: 283 min, 73.2 overs. Tea: 204-7 (Friend 37, Blignaut 1) 78 overs. New ball: taken after 80 overs at 207-7. 250: 359 min, 93.1 overs. Innings closed: 4.46pm.
Ebrahim 50: 126 min, 97 balls, 5 fours.
Friend 50: 107 min, 80 balls, 8 fours.
Umpires: D B Hair (Aus) and D L Orchard (SA).
ENGLAND WON BY AN INNINGS AND 69 RUNS
Man of the match: R L Johnson.
Men of the series: England: M A Butcher. Zimbabwe: H H Streak.
PLAYER BY PLAYER: HOW ENGLAND FARED IN ZIMBABWE TEST SERIES
Marcus Trescothick 5/10
Will have gained confidence by getting in at both Tests, but failed to look convincing or go on to post a major score. Caught well at first slip.
Michael Vaughan 3
After an outstanding 12 months the prospect of Zimbabwe did not appear to motivate England's new one-day captain. Sterner challenges will return him to his best.
Mark Butcher 9
Batted superbly at Lord's in difficult conditions and looked in equally good touch in Durham. Deservedly man of the series.
Nasser Hussain 4
Captained well in the second Test, but his batting is a concern. Hussain needs time in the middle to regain form. This month's Twenty20 extravaganza will not give him this.
Robert Key 4
Unfortunate at Lord's, but careless in Durham. He needs to impress during the one-day series or he will be returning to Canterbury for the remainder of the summer.
Alec Stewart 6
Kept wicket well and played a valuable innings on the first day of the second Test. Has to be picked for South Africa series, but will it give him enough time to pass Graham Gooch as England's highest run scorer? Bangladesh looms.
Anthony McGrath 8
Back-to-back fifties in his first two Tests show he can handle the occasion, but doubts remain over whether he is good enough against the best.
Ashley Giles 7
His lower-order batting is the source of great encouragement even if the bowling has been of little importance in matches dominated by seam. May not be in the slips for too much longer after dropping several catches.
Matthew Hoggard 6
Bowled well and looked more like his old self at Lord's. Despite sustaining an injury playing for Yorkshire he should play ahead of Johnson, Caddick and Gough when they are all fit.
Steve Harmison 7
Improvements to his game continue, but he still has to get more balls in the right area - somewhere between short and full - if he is to take more wickets.
James Anderson 9
Lived up to people's high expectations, the 20-year-old bowled better in Durham than at Lord's, where he took five wickets on his debut. Destined to become a class act.
Richard Johnson 7
Found it tougher going in Zimbabwe's second innings but 6 for 33 is a great way of starting a Test career. Needs to rediscover away swinger if he wants to trouble better batsman.
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