South Africa will offer the true test

England must rise again to build towards winter tour against world's new No 1 side
Click to follow
The Independent Online

There may be the small matter of 19 limited-over matches to go and they will create their own ebullient narrative. But in the warm afterglow of the Ashes there was only one place to look yesterday: Centurion, South Africa on 16 December and the first Test between England and the world's new No 1 ranked side.

Having knocked Australia from the perch they have occupied for most of the last 15 years, it seemed slightly unfair that England should still reside at fifth. South Africa are top, India and Sri Lanka jointly second and the Aussies have been pushed, courtesy of Andrew Strauss's gallant lads, to fourth.

If it did not seem much reward for dealing the blow, it also clarified how far England had fallen and how far they have to reach. Talk of world domination after the deeds at The Oval might have been understandable but it was mighty premature.

To have a whisper of a chance against South Africa where they will play four Tests, England have to find the right balance and the right players within it. Neither will be easy and it is probably correct to presume that Strauss, the captain, and Andy Flower, the coach, have already been through a few permutations.

The only sure thing is that the team which clinched the Ashes in 2009, as in 2005, will never take the field together again. Then, it was because of chronic injury, now it is primarily because of retirement. Andrew Flintoff has left Test cricket.

But if his place leads to the balance issue, there are other matters of personnel which are hardly less pressing. England might be heroes to a man this morning and for several mornings to come but that should not guarantee them selection in December, although the national selector re-emphasised the merits of loyalty and continuity yesterday.

He and his panel would do well to start debating serious restructuring, or risk an equally serious hammering in South Africa. Those at risk in England's side, probably in descending order, are Paul Collingwood, Alastair Cook, Stephen Harmison, Ian Bell and James Anderson. Of those, Harmison may pre-empt discussion by announcing his retirement.

Collingwood has been a stalwart. His place has frequently been under threat but each time the guillotine has been about to land he has wrestled himself free and seen the blade fall elsewhere. It is an oft-quoted truism that Collingwood has made everything of his limited talent and that the queue forming to fill places in England's middle order is about as long as tickets for the fifth day at The Oval yesterday. But in the series just gone, Collingwood made only one significant contribution.

It helped to save the day at Cardiff and the day would not have been saved otherwise. Thereafter it was a case of diminishing returns, culminating in a grotesque dismissal in England's second innings at The Oval.

As for Cook, at the top of the order, he had his second consecutive disappointing Ashes series. In 10 Test matches against Australia he has scored 498 runs at an average in the mid-twenties. There will be a natural instinct not to meddle with a side that has shown the quality of team work but Cook needs competition for his place. Bell has not made much progress in the four years since the last home Ashes series, or at least not the progress that should have been expected and demanded. Although he has made eight fifties in 25 innings against Australia he has never gone on to a hundred.

Much was anticipated of Anderson, less was forthcoming. The series brought him 12 wickets at a colossal 45 runs each, five of them in his only truly potent spell at Edgbaston when he looked like a world-beater. Maybe Graham Onions, whose accuracy was superior, would be a better option, though the absence of Flintoff will affect thinking.

By the time December comes, Kevin Pietersen will be back, which may be the insurance England require to play five bowlers. But then if the resurgent wicketkeeper batsman Matt Prior was to be injured who would bat at six? There will be no easy solutions. For now, though only for now, it is enough that England hold the Ashes.

England team for South Africa

Stephen Brenkley's team for the first Test in Centurion:

AJ Strauss (capt), AN Cook, IR Bell, KP Pietersen, IJL Trott, MJ Prior (wkt), SCJ Broad, GP Swann, RJ Sidebottom, JM Anderson, G Onions.

England squad: The winners and losers

*Three winners

Andrew Strauss In eight months he has built a team in his image and his own form has prospered because of the leadership.

Matt Prior He could have done with more runs – most of them could – but the wicketkeeper has become an integral part of this side.

Stuart Broad His spell in the final Test will endure through the ages but the trick will still be not to expect too much too soon.

*Three Losers

Alastair Cook For the second time he had a poor series against Australia. Has obvious technical flaws – perhaps needs some competition.

Paul Collingwood To criticise such a willing workhorse is tough, but he has to find proper consistency quickly.

James Anderson One blistering burst aside, we were left with only hope. An important winter looms and it may be South Africa or bust.