Flower blossoms to make telling case for staying put
England's stand-in coach has grown in stature despite his side's series defeat, writes Stephen Brenkley in Trinidad
Thursday 12 March 2009
In reflecting yesterday on a defeat that was totally unexpected, Andy Flower did something equally improbable. He looked and sounded like England's coach in waiting.
Since the side of which he has been in charge for the past two months had lost a Test series to the West Indies – a stunning reversal because it had happened to nobody else in the world for five years – this was a considerable achievement.
Flower, however, has grown in stature and authority as this tour has progressed. By the time England had failed to take the two wickets they needed in Port of Spain on Tuesday evening to level the series it was his team, his strategy, his vision. Not his alone, of course, not by any means, because as Flower swiftly and pertinently pointed out yesterday: "Andrew Strauss is leading this team and he's a good leader."
The bald fact remains that England lost 1-0 a series they began as no-brainer favourites. Beat the West Indies in their own back yard? Doesn't everybody? The tourists somehow contrived to lose the first Test in Kingston and could never quite get back on terms on a succession of flat pitches where they kept building monumental totals – 566-9, 600-6, 546-6 – only to be thwarted by opponents more dogged than they have been for at least a decade.
Never before had England scored more than 500 or declared their first innings on three successive occasions. It was not what England came for. They came for a comfortable victory, something to ease them into the harsher atmosphere of the Ashes this summer, something to keep them perky in doubtless darker days that lay ahead.
That this did not happen was astonishing and demonstrates how far England have to travel. As the Ashes are only two Test matches (both against the West Indies) and four months away there is hardly time to complete the journey.
There is evidence that Strauss and Flower, still officially assistant coach, will be able to forge an accomplished partnership. They have become close allies in the past few weeks and together have begun to establish where England have been going wrong and what they need to do to put it right.
"The lesson we have to learn is that we have to start series well," said Flower. "One of Steve Waugh's tenets was that you hit the ground running and get in the first punch against the opposition. We haven't won the first game in the series for a long time and have often lost it and we have got to do something about that.
"There must be a reason because it can't be a coincidence after so long. Maybe it has something to do with the way we treat the periods between series and we'll have to have a look at that."
This was unusually candid stuff from a coach and exactly what England need at present. It is actually 14 series and four years since England won the opening Test of a series and they have lost seven of them. There have been plenty of musings along the lines of how much talent resides in the dressing room and not enough about how to get the best out of it.
The series was ultimately decided on England's second innings on the fourth afternoon at Kingston when they were bowled out for 51 and lost by an innings. England's batting was indeed woeful but it should not be forgotten that Jerome Taylor, who missed the final match, produced the spell of his life – fast, accurate and with copious swing.
From then on, abandoned Test matches in Antigua apart, it allowed the West Indies to prepare anodyne pitches to hang on to their lead. They did so desperately at times and although their tactics made for grim, monotonous viewing which cannot have been much good for Test cricket, they also created two of the most nerve-shredding climaxes imaginable.
The state of the pitches was clearly influential and neither side possessed that touch of magic as enshrined by the likes of Shane Warne or Muttiah Muralitharan which might have forced the issue. As England were left one wicket short of victory in the second Test in Antigua and two short in the fifth in Trinidad there was a tendency to blame late second-innings declarations.
This is a red herring. On Tuesday morning, England scored at a rare lick, more than a run a ball, had a lead of 239 and 66 overs to bowl out the opposition. On paper, they might have declared earlier, given the West Indies more of a sniff but the gap and the time allowed England to keep attacking fields throughout. Strauss (and Flower) got it about right. Flower had no regrets.
"After that first Test we have played some really good cricket," he said. "We haven't bowled them out twice and we're suffering the consequences of that but I think some of the big totals we have put on the board and the way we have got them has been great, led by Strauss up front, with everyone contributing and going about it in an aggressive manner. I am also pleased with how the bowlers have worked and Jimmy Anderson has got better through the series and he must continue that progression. And seeing Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar bowl in tandem and create pressure was good to watch."
If it was a batsmen's series – there were 17 hundreds – two of England's bowlers came out of it especially well. Swann, who played in only three of the matches, took 19 wickets and showed himself to be a smart cricketer underneath the clownish exterior. Anderson's progress was discernible in every match.
Flower and Strauss made tough calls over selection, which needed to be made. "Some decisions are harder than others but I think if your intent is good you make a decision and you stand by it and then you go on and make your next one," said Flower.
This weekend Hugh Morris, the managing director of England cricket who has been the manager of this tour will fly home briefly to compile a shortlist for the job of coach, officially to be called team director.
There will be scores of applications and some able coaches, but the man to take England forward may already be there.
Referrals on trial: Controversial decisions that shaped the series
Ramnaresh Sarwan – Jamaica
He was on five in the West Indies' first innings when he was lbw to Stephen Harmison. The review saw the decision – debatably – overturned, he went on to score the first of three centuries.
Shiv Chanderpaul – Barbados
Chanderpaul appealed after padding up to Jimmy Anderson on 70. It was denied, which was a remarkable decision but there was insufficient evidence to change it.
Shiv Chanderpaul – Trinidad
Chanderpaul on 92 is caught behind off Swann but asks for it to be reviewed. No conclusive evidence either way but decision is overturned. Chanderpaul makes 147 not out.
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