England's ring of confidence provides platform to challenge the world's best
Just how good are Flintoff's side? Angus Fraser provides some answers after the remarkable win in the third Test in India
Friday 24 March 2006
The physically demanding and mentally debilitating schedule of the England cricket team, who travelled to Jaipur yesterday to begin their preparations for the one-day series against India, has given the players very little time to sit back and reflect on what they have achieved over the past three weeks. The white ball and blue clothing had appeared at practice well before Matthew Hoggard caught Munaf Patel in the deep to level the series, and the team will play its sole warm-up game tomorrow against a President's XI in the Pink City.
But before we become wrapped up in the razzmatazz of limited-over cricket it is worth assessing how England have fared on the subcontinent this winter. England, with a far stronger team than the one they fielded here, were disappointing in Pakistan before Christmas. There were reasons: the players were still recovering from the emotionally draining experience of regaining the Ashes - but, even so, there was a naïvety about some of the cricket they played against a very good Pakistan.
England left Pakistan stating that they needed to learn from their mistakes they made if they were to compete in India and, after watching them dominate two of the three Test matches they played here, it is fair to say they have. With the summer visits by Sri Lanka and Pakistan followed by the wonderfully enticing prospect of an Ashes tour Down Under, there are still plenty of questions about the true state of the England team, but perhaps a few more answers than there were a month ago.
What was it exactly that England did differently in the Tests in India, and how did they managed to perform better with a much weaker side?
In a bizarre way England's chaotic preparations for the first Test, where three players - Marcus Trescothick, Michael Vaughan and Simon Jones - withdrew in the build-up to the match, helped them. The apparent disarray meant that expectation was low when Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook walked out to bat in Nagpur, and this took an enormous amount of pressure off the team. England had nothing to lose and Andrew Flintoff, in his first game as captain, could tell his players just to go out and enjoy themselves.
After performing so well in the first Test the mentality of the team would have inevitably changed because everybody was now expecting that little bit more. The come-down in Mohali, where England lost by nine wickets was, in many ways, foreseeable. It is easy to be carefree in one match, but in consecutive games...
Yet the defeat, along with Stephen Harmison's and Cook's withdrawal, allowed the team to return to the frame of mind it had in the first Test. Expectation was again low, the pressure was off, and in Bombay they once again outperformed.
Fair enough, but surely there is more to it than that?
There is. Almost every member of the squad who played contributed at some stage. India were too reliant on two players - Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble - but England had three batsmen who scored hundreds and five others that posted at least one score of over 50. Matthew Hoggard and Flintoff were also outstanding with the ball.
The the confident aura the side has gained from two years of unparalleled success is proving to be contagious and it has made it easier for newcomers to fit in. They have also given the team a more vibrant feel. To them every day offers an exciting challenge.
That England were able to perform so well with a second string is extremely encouraging. England have had a strong core of 11 or 12 players for quite some time, but that has now risen to 16.
Who are the extra four then?
Alastair Cook had a remarkable debut, scoring 60 and 104 not out in Nagpur. He is young and still has quite a lot to learn, but he has the game and mentality to succeed at this level. There are whispers that Marcus Trescothick's personal problems may cause him to retire from international cricket, and should this be the case Cook would replace him.
Owais Shah, too, had a very impressive Test debut. Followers of Middlesex have been aware of his talent since he scored 64 against Darren Gough and Chris Silverwood on a dodgy Headingley pitch at the age of 16. Everybody seemed to enjoy his slightly cocky approach and the quality of his strokeplay. Ian Bell had better watch out.
Monty Panesar faded as the series progressed, but he too looks a player for the future. His batting and fielding - heaven's knows what he was doing under that catch off Shaun Udal at mid-off on Wednesday - need to improve but he is a proper spin bowler. If Ashley Giles fails to regain full fitness Panesar should play.
It was also great to see James Anderson bowling as well as he did at the beginning of his career. Anderson has had a distressing couple of years hanging around the fringes of the England team and now it is hoped that he has finally worked out that you cannot hope to take a wicket with every ball you bowl, and that batsmen do make mistakes when they are given few run-scoring opportunities.
And what about Flintoff, wasn't he magnificent?
We are all running out of things to say about the man. Making him captain was an inspired decision. His delightful nature made it easy for new players to fit in the team, and each time he walks on to a cricket field you cannot help but be impressed by what he does. One perishes the thought of him picking up an injury; it would have a catastrophic affect on the side.
Were there any negatives?
The were plenty of positives, but aren't there still a couple of areas of concern. Geraint Jones keeping was sloppy in the first two Tests and he averaged only 15 with the bat, and Kevin Pietersen keeps getting out to bloody awful shots. What do England do?
Jones is a very popular member of the team and Duncan Fletcher is a huge fan, but his place in the side will continue to be questioned if he keeps failing with the bat. Jones's batting average needs to be 10 runs higher than it currently is: 27.8. Jack Russell was dropped for a better batsman with an average of 27.1 in Test cricket.
Pietersen is a free spirit and you have to let him run. I would rather see him continue to bat positively because he is at his best when he plays like this. Many former players who question his approach were happy to be dismissed by a good ball when they were playing in the Nineties; it meant they would not receive criticism for the way in which they got out.
But by failing to play their natural game they were as culpable as Pietersen when he gets out playing an extravagant shot. Pietersen would rather be caught at long on than at bat/pad and I am not going to criticise him for this. The fear is that he tries to be even more aggressive in an effort to show his detractors that he will not change, and in so doing makes himself more vulnerable.
Does this tour now mean we are back on track to retain the Ashes in Australia next winter?
I feel England will find it easier to win Test matches in Australia than in Pakistan or India. The bouncy pitches down under will help England's bowlers, who rattled Australia's batsmen in 2005. The team that won the Ashes - the XI who won at Trent Bridge - may never play together again but the encouraging thing is that England are winning with young players who will be around for another eight to 10 years.
Australia turned to youth but it does not have appeared to work, and they have returned to the same ageing figures - Damien Martyn and Michael Kasprowicz - who were humbled last summer. Bring it on.
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