Ravenous run-scorers give England cutting edge

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The Independent Online

Andrew Strauss scores a century on his Test debut; Nasser Hussain retires after scoring a match-winning hundred at Lord's; Geraint Jones reaches three figures for the first time in only his third Test; Michael Vaughan becomes the eighth Englishman to score a century in each innings of a Test match; Robert Key posts the third highest score by an England player at Lord's; Andrew Flintoff smashes a career-best 167 at Edgbaston and Marcus Trescothick becomes the ninth English batsman to reach three figures twice in the same Test match.

These are just seven of the milestones reached by England's dynamic batting line-up during the summer of 2004. There are others too. Graham Thorpe helped to win the third Test against New Zealand with a brilliant century, Strauss scored another century at Lord's, this time against the West Indies, and Trescothick blasted the Kiwis for 132 at Headingley.

In all, eight players have scored 12 Test hundreds for England this summer. Not bad when you consider they have played only five of this season's seven scheduled Test matches.

Well, actually this achievement is far better than not bad - it is outstanding. It is a feat that has only been matched once by an England side in the 87 seasons of international cricket that have been played in this country. Denis Compton may have been the last England player to score four centuries in a summer - against South Africa in 1947 - but in 2002 four of England's current squad, along with Mark Butcher, Alec Stewart and John Crawley, filled their boots against Sri Lanka and India.

England's batting line-up of 2002 is in danger of losing another of its records to the present group of ravenous run-scorers in the coming weeks. Two years ago, Hussain's England scored 4,193 runs; this summer's greedy bunch of willow-wielders now have two Test matches in which to accumulate the 776 runs they need to pass this total.

With the Wisden Trophy retained and the knowledge gained that this West Indian bowling attack is weak and wayward - it has haemorrhaged over 500 runs in the first innings of six of its previous eight Test matches - England will expect to reach this landmark during next week's third Test at Old Trafford.

England's batting in Test cricket during the last 10 weeks has been wonderful to watch. As a group they have played with freedom and flair, and passed 440 on four occasions. They have also scored at a rate which has given their bowlers plenty of time to bowl the opposition out twice. In this period England's bowlers have taken most of the plaudits - runs help you to dominate and stay in Test matches but you have to take 20 wickets to win - but the batsmen have made this task much easier.

Several factors have allowed England's batsmen to score this quantity of runs. An increase in the number of Test matches played, the excellence of the pitches used and the quality of the opposition's bowling have all played a significant role. As have lightning-fast outfields, high-quality bats - where mis-hits go for six - and short boundaries. Each has ensured that batsmen get full value for their strokes.

But while England continue to win, these issues are unlikely to cause concern to any member of the side. The prize-money keeps adding up and Sunday's 256-run victory over the West Indies was the eighth in nine Tests this year.

Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, will have enjoyed sitting back in the comfort of the dressing-room watching his players dominate proceedings even if he is fully aware that life will not always be this straightforward.

Batting was far tougher in the Caribbean in March and April. Out there, runs were hard to come by, but England's batsmen showed they can battle it out on bowler-friendly surfaces. On occasions they walked off battered and bruised, but they dug in and, through the bravery and skill of Butcher, Hussain and Thorpe, posted competitive totals.

Injury and retirement mean that only Thorpe remains in the current side, but he and England's other experienced batsmen will be keeping the feet of Strauss and Key firmly on the ground. Good batsmen do not forget the difficult times - it is the reason why they ruthlessly exploit favourable conditions.

Strauss and Jones are yet to come up against the best in the world and we will know more about them in 12 months' time after they have played against South Africa and Australia.

But it is the fact that England's batting line-up now contains seven players who are capable of scoring Test hundreds which has given Fletcher the greatest pleasure. It is something he has always wanted, and this strength in depth gives England an excellent chance of recovering from a poor start.

What has been remarkable, though, is the way in which the batsmen have dove-tailed. In the game at Lord's against the West Indies, Strauss, Key and Vaughan scored centuries but Trescothick and Thorpe failed. Yet at Edgbaston the three who had been successful a week before perished early while Trescothick and Thorpe excelled.

The batsmen in the England team will not admit it but quietly, underneath the surface, they are competing against each other. Every cricketer playing in the international arena wants to be the star of the show and the one the television commentators turn to at the end of the day.

In some teams this can cause jealousy, which can lead to trouble. But under Vaughan's leadership every player appears to be enjoying his team-mates' success. Not only is this a healthy situation to be in, it is the sign of a good team.

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