England's top six is not a closed shop, says Flower

Coach backs batsmen to thrive this summer but says there will be competition for places

England are still the world's best Test team. The bunting should remain resolutely unhung. Although there was a temptation to pluck it from cold storage in the stifling heat of the P Sara Oval on Saturday, wise heads prevailed.

Only a few of the travelling band of supporters were overwrought by the eight-wicket win against Sri Lanka, which levelled the mini-series at 1-1 and ensured England retained their status. The rest, which probably included the players, recognised that it was a cause of extreme relief as much as elation after a salutary start to the year and the team's tenure at No 1 in the world rankings.

This is not to demean the last-gasp win and the deeds which enabled it: there was a breathtaking century from Kevin Pietersen, occasionally inspired off-spin from Graeme Swann and fast bowling of rare control from Jimmy Anderson. But too many mistakes had been made in the preceding three months to permit unfettered rejoicing.

 



The Test scoreboard for the winter reads Pakistan and Sri Lanka 4, England 1. It was as well the one came at the end because, if nothing else, it demonstrated that England had kept at it and were willing to learn.

They can regroup for the less onerous task of playing West Indies in reasonable heart. If West Indies, by the time the three-Test series begins in May, have been defeated at home by Australia, they will be summarily dispatched in English conditions - they may be in any case - and it will amount to little.

There follows the extremely serious challenge of South Africa, No 2 in the world and looking like No 1. With a bowling attack which looks the match of England's and a similarly settled batting order, with all the advantages and worries that brings, they will slug it out every step of the way.

It is a huge pity that the series is of only three matches. Already from this distance it looks as though we will be left craving more. All this, with India to follow next autumn. And England's eye will be on Asia after the runaround they have been given this winter.

Despite evidence to the contrary, Andy Flower, England's coach, still seems of a mind to support his present batsmen to do well not only in England, which they will, but in the subcontinent next autumn, which is far less certain. He is certain that they had learnt important lessons when the end came on Saturday.

"I think it's a little early to say that this batting unit will be there at the end of the year, we don't know how things are going to pan out," he said in the aftermath of victory on Saturday.

"Yes, this batting unit is good enough to score heavy runs in India, but part of our job is to ensure it isn't a closed shop and if there are other players in England, we want them pushing the top seven here, constantly. That will drive our standards upwards.

"Not one player owns a position in the batting order. There's competition for all places. Of course, some are more secure than others, but I don't want to comment who'll bat at six against the West Indies as I need to talk to the selectors. We'll be having a selection meeting later this month and that's when we'll be discussing it in greater detail."

If you choose to read between those lines, the interpretation might be that the top five will continue for now. That is right, also for now.

Strauss will clearly continue as captain; Alastair Cook, his deputy, made two 90s over the five matches; Jonathan Trott made a century and a fifty in Sri Lanka; Pietersen cast aside his previous troubles to score one of the most brilliant of his 20 Test hundreds.

That leaves Ian Bell at No 5. Poor Bell could do nothing right by the end. He left England in January as one of the world's best batsmen, maybe the best, and he returns with the suspicion that he may still be the best batsman in his street but only just.

Last year Bell averaged 118 in Test cricket in eight matches; this year in five so far, he averages 104 runs fewer. Talk about falling off a mountain. He was shot by the end, unsure whether to stick or twist. He is too richly talented and too good a team man easily to discard but he has to come up with a way to ensure the same does not happen all over again in India.

For long enough it really did seem that the last waltz might be approaching for Strauss. But he and the team did just enough by the end to dance on awhile. There is abundant admiration and respect for him but batsmen have to score runs, captains have to run winning teams. Flower said that Strauss never once wobbled and that his belief in the captain had never wavered.

"Of course, we were aware of what's happening around us in the press," said Flower. "But he's a strong man and is obviously a very confident and secure bloke and he's been focusing on scoring runs and leading the team well. He's got a few runs here and he's led the team outstandingly well."

The bowling on Saturday, when England needed quick wickets to avoid a tricky chase for victory, was as uniformly good as it has been all winter – and for longer than that. Jimmy Anderson was exemplary, Steve Finn and Tim Bresnan slightly less so but how they kept going. It was Bresnan's 11th win out of 11 Test matches.

"He hasn't reminded me but he stares at me in a telling way," said Flower.

Graeme Swann took six second-innings wickets, which made 10 in the match, and his late incisions on Friday evening were the key turning point in this victory. He is some bowler by any standards and for a modern-day off-spinner is remarkable, defying convention, and coming back wonderfully well here after a quiet year. The cheeky chappy personified, sometimes Swann defies that assessment. His attitude towards his colleague Samit Patel is churlish. He might not be his best buddy, but he ought to get over it and quickly. Patel did not pull up any trees but he might be putting down roots.

It finished beautifully. England looked smart again. But Flower, as ever, had the measure of it. "Again we aren't the finished article playing against spin just because we won one Test in the subcontinent. "It's very obvious where we've fallen short this winter and that's the specific area. Our bowling has been outstanding, our fielding has been a little bit up and down, though the commitment has been good. It's just that one area." Sometimes it was an area that looked as big as the Indian Ocean.

England players' winter tour ratings

Tom Collomosse in Colombo

Andrew Strauss: The victory in Colombo cannot hide the captain's troubles this winter and he is without a century in 50 Test innings. Four defeats are a worry but it is hard to bet against Strauss putting the ship right again this summer. 5

Alastair Cook: Scores of 94 in Abu Dhabi and Colombo were the highlights but too many early dismissals prevented England from building a solid opening stand. Rarely able to take command against the spinners either here or against Pakistan. 6

Jonathan Trott: The England batsman who looked most comfortable against spin bowling and his 112 in Galle, albeit in a losing cause, was an outstanding effort that none of his team-mates could match. 7

Kevin Pietersen: Under par in every other Test this winter, a class apart in Colombo; he could not find that form against Pakistan, but he remains England's most dangerous batsman and should have a bumper summer. 6

Ian Bell: Came into the winter as the England batsman in the best form and leaves it as the one who has had the most difficulties. Bell's talent is beyond doubt but he will be keen to regain form very quickly this summer. 4

Eoin Morgan: Rightly dropped after playing poorly against Pakistan, Morgan is a top-class limited-overs player but, after opting to play again in the Indian Premier League, rather than for Middlesex, is not likely to start against West Indies in May. 3

Matt Prior: His keeping was of a consistently high standard in the UAE and, while those levels dipped a little in Sri Lanka, his value as a wicketkeeper-batsman remains as high as that of any in international cricket. Can bat at No 6. 7

Stuart Broad: England's best bowler against Pakistan, he didn't look fully fit in Galle and a calf injury kept him out in Colombo. As a bowler who will cause problems in all conditions, he is invaluable; England must keep him fit. 8

Graeme Swann: Marginally outbowled by Monty Panesar in UAE, Swann reaffirmed his status as No 1 spinner in Sri Lanka with 16 wickets in two Tests. His spell of superb control on the final morning in Colombo was his best for some time. 8

Jimmy Anderson: Consistent against Pakistan, excellent against Sri Lanka, Anderson took top-order wickets in both Tests here, showing he is dangerous anywhere. His duel with South Africa's Dale Steyn will be a summer highlight. 8

Chris Tremlett: The 6ft 7in paceman played only the first Test against Pakistan in Dubai, in which he did not take a wicket, and missed the rest of the winter because he needed a back operation. It will be difficult for him to get back into the team. 6

Monty Panesar: Bowled intelligently in his two Tests against Pakistan, but was not as potent in Galle and his two embarrassing dropped catches off Mahela Jayawardene will not have helped his cause. Dropped for the second Test. 6

Samit Patel: Performed just about adequately in both Colombo and Galle without ever giving the impression that he would become a Test regular. The feeling remains that he doesn't do quite enough with either bat or ball. 6

Tim Bresnan: How would Strauss and Flower dare leave out Bresnan after 11 victories in 11 Tests? Back in the side in Colombo, he performed solidly and faces a straight fight with Finn for the third seamer's role in this summer's series. 6

Steven Finn: Did not pull up any trees in his only Test appearance of the winter but is more menacing now, and troubled all of Sri Lanka's powerful middle order in Colombo. A bright future in Test cricket awaits him. 6

Andy Flower: Not too many quibbles with selection and he tells it straight after every Test. But he knows that changes will have to be made if South Africa turn England over. 6

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