Relief will have been the most prevalent emotion among the England players when Ryan Sidebottom removed Chris Martin's off-stump to seal a 121-run win in the third Test and a 2-1 series victory over New Zealand yesterday. The spin doctors within Team England may attempt to portray the comeback from the embarrassing defeat in the first Test in Hamilton as a remarkable achievement, but unfortunately it was not.
Satisfying, yes; deserved, yes; but this was not a triumph over adversity against a strong opponent. New Zealand are a competitive team who make the most of what they have, but they are short of quality and should have been no match for an England side playing to their full potential. With the exception of Sidebottom, who was outstanding throughout the series, and Stuart Broad and Tim Ambrose, who both showed promise, this was a workmanlike performance from a team who should be performing to a far higher level.
Michael Vaughan, the captain, predictably, praised the character of his side, while Peter Moores, the England coach, insisted that he has found out a great deal about his players in the 12 months since taking charge. Both admitted the team are still some way from where they want them to be and that there was plenty of room for improvement. Even so, it is hard not to feel that many questions still remain unanswered.
How good are England? Daniel Vettori, the New Zealand captain, summed it up pretty well. He said England were a good Test side, but there were several good sides in the world. According to Vettori, Australia, South Africa, India and Sri Lanka are all ahead of England and that the rankings – England are fifth – were about right.
It is hard to disagree. This was not a Test series of the highest quality. Indeed, some of the cricket, particularly the first-innings batting in the third Test, was awful. At times it was difficult to believe you were watching Test cricket, so irresponsible was the strokeplay.
So what is missing from the England team and how can it be improved? Andrew Flintoff for a start. Not for his batting but for his bowling, which, when he is fit, is as good as anything in the world. Sidebottom continues to be a revelation and Broad seems to made of the right stuff. Injury permitting, he will be around for a long time. Monty Panesar was more like his old self in New Zealand and that leaves one bowling position up for grabs. James Anderson looked the part in the second Test in Wellington, but was poor in the third in Napier. He deserves another chance in the summer, but has to show greater consistency and discipline.
The batting is interesting because four of the top six will return home averaging more than 40 and feeling quite pleased with themselves. They should not be, and at the start of the summer they need to be informed that more is expected from them. Each deserved a chance, but further periods of complacency should not be tolerated. With the exception of Kevin Pietersen, of whom too much is at times expected, the averages of the other five have been in decline for some time. The team, rather arrogantly, assert that all average over 40 – but Don Bradman could probably have played until he was 60 years old before his average dropped under 40. It would not have meant he should have kept his place.
It sounds like that is it for Stephen Harmison and Matthew Hoggard, then? Not necessarily, but they will have to bowl well for their counties at the start of the season to push for a recall. Time may be up for Harmison, especially if Broad and Chris Tremlett remain fit, but Hoggard will probably return. The younger bowlers should be given a decent run and Hoggard is the ideal man to have in the background, fitting in when injury or a loss of form arises. The selectors made a brave and correct decision dropping Harmison and Hoggard. There was a more positive vibe about the side when it contained younger bowlers.
Vaughan had a bit of a shocker, averaging just 20 with the bat. No one was happier with the series victory. A draw would have placed his position as captain under pressure. It could still be if England lose to South Africa later this year. Moving him up to open has not worked. He averaged 28 during the winter, compared to 57 batting at No 3 last summer. Andrew Strauss and Vaughan could well swap places for the first Test of the summer against New Zealand.
Even as captain, Vaughan's tour was mixed. At his best he is a positive leader but there were times here, usually when his bowlers were bowling rubbish, when he was very cautious. The team still seem to respond to him, but captains, like coaches, do have a shelf life. Players eventually grow tired of listening to the same voice. The selectors want him to remain in charge until the 2009 Ashes and he probably will. If Strauss can regain his batting form of three years ago and Vaughan fails to score runs, it will be interesting. Strauss is the only real alternative to Vaughan as Test captain.
It was noticeable that the grounds were only half full for many days of the Test series. A Twenty20 cricket revolution seems to be taking place in India, so is there a future for a sport played over five days? For the game's sake it is to be hoped so. The cricket here may not have been of the highest standard, but there was no shortage of drama. No other sport takes its players and fans on such a roller-coaster trip. Twenty20 and one-day cricket have their attractions, but most games are quickly forgotten because little is invested and the result is often irrelevant.
Attending the Tests in New Zealand was one of the most pleasurable cricketing experiences I have had. The organisers pitched it just right. In limited-overs cricket they try to grab you by the throat from the moment you enter the ground and shake you for as long as the game lasts.
New Zealand rarely see big crowds at home Tests and they tried to make the experience relaxing and family-oriented, taking the games to proper cricket grounds rather than big stadiums. It worked. Vivaldi and Pink Floyd were played during the intervals, spectators were allowed on the outfield during the lunch break and the grounds were full of children playing. The grass banks were full of families sitting on blankets and having a picnic.
Whether that fits in with what many people think a major sporting event should be is debatable, but NZC says that there has been more interest here than ever before. Television income pays the bills for every sport and Test cricket is popular because it is a relatively cheap way of filling the ever-growing number of channels every supplier has. So while Test cricket is coming under pressure, it is to be hoped it continues to hold its own. England, of course, need to do better than that.
Marked men How England scored in New Zealand, by Angus Fraser
Michael Vaughan 123 runs @ 20.5, 1x50
The move back to opener does not appear to have worked. The series win eased pressure on his position as captain, but he needs runs too. 4/10
Alastair Cook 194 @ 32.33, 1x50
A disappointing tour in conditions he should have enjoyed. Passed 35 in four of his six innings, but failed to go on to post a big score. 5/10
Andrew Strauss 274 @ 45.66, 1x100
One big score does not make a tour, although it has secured his immediate Test future. Still needs a good start to the season to end speculation. 6/10
Kevin Pietersen 259 @ 43.16, 1x100
No longer seems sure how he should bat. Attempts to be more responsible, but it does not bring out in the best of him. Hundred in third Test was crucial. 6/10
Ian Bell 250 @ 50.00, 1x100, 1x50
Batted beautifully for his 110, but did not score many runs when it mattered – in the first innings of matches and at crunch times. 6/10
Paul Collingwood 244 @ 40.66, 3x50
The most consistent of England's batsmen, but coming in at No 6 reduces the chances of him posting the big scores he wants. 6/10
Tim Ambrose 204 @ 34.00, 1x100, 1x50
Made an impressive start to his international career, scoring 55 on his debut and a match-winning hundred in second Test. Keeping was tidy too, but England have been here before. 7/10
Stuart Broad 8 wickets @ 31.25; 90 runs @ 30.00
Showed huge promise in the two Tests he played, bowling long, aggressive, disciplined spells. Can bat too, and a long career beckons. 7/10
Ryan Sidebottom 24 wickets @ 17.08; 3x5 wkt, 1x10 wkt
He could have done no more, producing the complete performance. It was fitting he took the series-winning wicket – nobody worked harder. 10/10
Monty Panesar 11 wickets @ 30.08, 1x5 wkt
Bowled better than in Sri Lanka and came into his own when his captain needed him most, in the final innings of the series when the fast bowlers were showing signs of tiring. 6/10
James Anderson 8 wickets @ 35.37, 1x5 wkt
Where do England go with him? Excellent in the first innings in Wellington then disappointing in Napier. Needs to show greater consistency and discipline. 5/10
Stephen Harmison 1 wicket @ 121
Wayward and expensive, he turned up underprepared and was exposed. Needs to go back to Durham and bowl well if he is to return. He may not. 2/10
Matthew Hoggard 1 wicket @ 151
Like Harmison, he did not look ready for the first Test. But is he just out of form or in decline? That is what the selectors have to decide. He will be back. 2/10
* G P Swann, O A Shah and P Mustard did not play a Test.