Harmison and hard graft the way to revive ailing England

After the humiliation of Headingley, Angus Fraser lays out his recovery plan for Michael Vaughan's side for the last two Tests against South Africa
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The Independent Online

Selectors make mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes. Even Sir Alex Ferguson buys the occasional expensive dud. It is whether an individual or committee learn from and correct the errors they make that is paramount.

England's disconcerting 10-wicket defeat to South Africa at Headingley has given Michael Vaughan and the selectors a great deal to contemplate. On and off the field England's disjointed and distracted side were outplayed and outmanoeuvred by a team who have often struggled for unity themselves. South Africans used to refer to the post-apartheid era, the period in which the country's sporting sides have been welcomed back into the international fold as "since readmission". Now it is referred to as "since unity".

England produced a catalogue of errors before and during the second Test, all of which need to be amended if they are to deprive South Africa of a first Test series win here since unity. The batting and bowling of Vaughan's side were glaringly not good enough and there were other issues that affected the team's performance too.

1. Selection

When Vaughan admitted that a confused selection policy unsettled and divided his dressing room he acknowledged that there was a naïvety about the decisions made by himself and the selectors prior to the Test. At least one of them could have been avoided.

The Test will always be remembered for the selection of Darren Pattinson (right), the Grimsby-born Aussie with 11 first-class matches under his belt prior to his England debut. Purely from a bowling standpoint Pattinson's selection was not a poor decision. The 29-year-old has a good strong bowling action and is a capable performer. On Sunday he performed as well as any England bowler.

What the selectors failed to realise is the effect someone like Pattinson has on the rest of the side. It is not that the players disliked him or did not want him there; England cricketers have become accustomed to overseas accents in the dressing room. But his appearance in Leeds will have caught the team completely by surprise. Nobody really knew him, not even his occasional Nottinghamshire team-mates Stuart Broad or Ryan Sidebottom.

Pattinson's selection will have confounded certain members of the team. Privately, in little groups, they will have sat together and said: "What's this bloke doing here and where the bloody hell has he come from?" There will have been sympathy for former team-mates overlooked too. Players will have been asking themselves: "What have Matthew Hoggard, Stephen Harmison, Simon Jones, Chris Tremlett or Sajid Mahmood done wrong?"

Vaughan had no input over the initial 12-man squad who were picked or the selection of Pattinson as cover, but he did have a say before the toss. The England captain appears to have reservations about Tremlett, who was named in the original squad, and, having never met Pattinson before, trusted the views of the selectors on the morning of the match. Will he be as keen to trust their judgement in the future?

This may all sound soft and namby-pamby, but issues like this do affect players. I remember an England batsman once getting out and saying that he could not focus on his batting because he was wondering whether his parents' tickets had been left at the right gate. It sounds ridiculous but it happens.

A spirit, a feeling of unity, cannot be forced on a team; it comes from within the group of players. Attempting to get the right blend of personalities together to produce a team spirit is akin to inventing a new cocktail, and if you put milk and lemon together you may not get the result you want.

2. Collingwood

It is never easy telling a popular and admired player that he is surplus, especially one who cares deeply and is captain of the one-day side. Vaughan admitted that he normally announces the team to the players the day before the Test. He said that England were always going to play five bowlers at Headingley too, which meant that Paul Collingwood was always going to miss out.

We all delay making the phone call we do not want to make and the decision to inform Collingwood of his axing on the morning of the Test backfired. Collingwood was extremely upset about being omitted and this too will have had an effect on other members of the side. It should have been done the day before.

3. Flintoff

The return of English cricket's favourite son after 18 months in the wilderness was always going to be a distraction. The hype surrounding his return must have made the England players feel that Jesus was about to walk through the door. There was very little the selectors or Vaughan could have done about Andrew Flintoff's reappearance, and it too played a minor role in events. The return of the star man can leave others, who previously had a bigger role to play in things, feeling slightly marginalised.

4. A team needs grafters as well as superstars

The axing of Collingwood and Sidebottom's back injury deprived England of two of their feistier and hardest-working players. Neither is a natural cricketer, but each continues to squeeze every drop of talent from their bodies.

Every team needs several players of this nature because they set a wonderful example to young, impressionable players. I agreed with the decision to drop Collingwood, but he would not have batted like a "millionaire", to quote Vaughan on Monday evening.

5. Cosy club

It is hard to believe it after the past five days, but prior to Headingley England's selectors had picked the same side for a record six consecutive Tests. The policy received some criticism for supposedly turning the team into a cosy little club, where it was harder to get dropped than selected.

Vaughan and the selectors denied the claim, but the fallout to the changes from the first Test suggests it might have been. It does not take a lot to agitate a tranquil environment, but over four days of Test cricket England seem to have turned left out of the doldrums straight into the Cape of Good Hope.

6. Batting

In a cricketing landscape that is becoming ever more dominated by Twenty20 it seems rather dull to discuss a batsman's ability to leave the ball. But in Test cricket it is a pivotal skill that a batsman knows where his off-stump is and does not get drawn into playing at balls he could leave alone. England's batsmen, unlike their South African counterparts, failed to show the skill and patience required to do this in Leeds.

The number of England batsmen who were caught by Mark Boucher, the South Africa wicketkeeper, and his slip and gully cordon, highlights the shortcoming. In all, 15 of England's 20 wickets were claimed in the region. It is an unacceptable statistic, particularly on a pitch that offered minimal assistance to a fast bowler.

It could only be a blip – remember, England scored 593 for 8 in the first Test at Lord's – but, even so, there was a distinct lack of responsibility about some of the batting. Kevin Pietersen scored 58 runs off 51 balls in the second Test, with 46 of them coming from boundaries. Such batting may increase his value in the lucrative Indian Premier League but it will not win many Tests. England do not want Pietersen to be overcautious, he plays his best cricket when he is positive, but there are gears between first and sixth.

7. Bowling

England's bowling was modest but far from hopeless. For much of the Test they bowled a similar line and length to that of their opponents. The difference was that South Africa's batsmen resisted flirting outside off-stump; England's did not.

Yet there was plenty of room for improvement. The slope at Headingley makes it an awkward ground to bowl at, but far too many balls from Flintoff and Broad were too short or wide. Neither has a particularly impressive strike rate, and they never will until they bowl more deliveries that threaten the stumps. It is no coincidence that bowlers who bowl more balls that would hit the stumps take more wickets.

Monty Panesar has been the biggest disappointment to date – there was an 83-over gap between two of his wickets. Panesar has to become more flexible, varying his pace and style according to the pitch.

8. Where from here?

England are in a pickle.They need to make changes but will be wary of the effect it may have on the side. Vaughan and Peter Moores, the England coach, would like to get Collingwood back in, but it is difficult when the team's bowlers cannot bowl the opposition out.

England have to take 20 wickets in at least one of the two remaining Tests to avoid a series defeat, but they have taken just 23 in 438 overs in the first two games. A Test match lasts only 450 overs.

This suggests the bowling attack needs to be changed. If Sidebottom is fit he returns in place of Pattinson, but what of Broad? In him England have a young player of outstanding potential, whose batting gets better every time he walks to the crease. But his bowling is beginning to look a little tired. It is a tough call but the Edgbaston Test may be an opportunity to give him a rest, even though it would weaken their batting.

Primarily, England need to unsettle South Africa's batsmen and pace is the best medium for achieving the goal. No England bowler possesses greater menace than Harmison, who is reportedly bowling fast and well for Durham. A risk or two needs to be taken and it could be the moment to release the big man.

If Broad makes way for Harmison and Collingwood remains out of the side, England somehow need to strengthen their batting. The quandary makes Tim Ambrose's place a topic of discussion. The selectors like Ambrose and rate him highly, but Matthew Prior, the Sussex wicketkeeper, is a better batsman. Good luck, selectors, this is where you earn your money.

But all is not lost. England have won Test matches from far more vulnerable positions than this, and series against South Africa have the intriguing habit of producing surprises.

Recent England home series v S Africa

1994: SERIES DRAWN 1-1

1st Test, Lord's South Africa won by 356 runs

2nd Test, Headingley Match drawn

3rd Test, The Oval England won by eight wickets

1998: ENGLAND WIN 2-1

1st Test, Edgbaston Match drawn

2nd Test, Lord's South Africa won by 10 wickets

3rd Test, Old Trafford Match drawn

4th Test, Trent Bridge England won by eight wickets

5th Test, Headingley: England won by 23 runs

2003: SERIES DRAWN 2-2

1st Test, Edgbaston Match drawn

2nd Test, Lord's South Africa won by an innings and 92 runs

3rd Test, Trent Bridge England won by 70 runs

4th Test, Headingley South Africa won by 191 runs

5th Test, The Oval England won by nine wickets

OVERALL: Tests 13, England won 5, South Africa won 4

Views from the boundary

Vaughan: The Untouchable?

"I think Vaughan should be under the pump. He's averaging something like 26 or 27 for 2008, against some ordinary attacks. Yet it seems that he's untouchable because he's an Ashes winner."

Marcus, www.cricket.mailliw.com – The Corridor (A Cricket Blog)

"Broad and Anderson have shown some grit but Pietersen, Bell, Strauss and Vaughan need to have a look at themselves."

sixstitcher, abcofcricket.com – Cricket Fans' Forum

"With the plundering of Pattinson from Down Under, there might be some truth in the rumour Warne could play for England"

Shane, abcofcricket.com – Australia's Cricket Forum

Bumble barmy?

"Does anyone seriously think England can bounce back from this mauling? David Lloyd thinks that Broad's knock was a positive that England could take away. That just about sums it up."

prophet_pbuh, www.cricket365.com – Cricket365