Stephen Brenkley: New boys show England a way forward
Bopara, Onions and Swann bring fresh impetus and confidence ahead of the Ashes
Sunday 10 May 2009
One down, 28 to go. The idea that the first step is the hardest might be a load of psycho-babble but victory in three days in the First Test at Lord's, with so many games of cricket ahead, was still one firmly in the right direction for England. They not only beat West Indies but did so with a refashioned team in which recent additions played the most prominent roles.
Had it not gone so smoothly – a win by 10 wickets, the first at Lord's for four years, the first in an opening Test for 15 series, a significant step towards regaining the Wisden Trophy – the schedule of games ahead, of all hues, would have begun to look mountainous.
The victory, though against modest opposition who might have been more at home playing on Planet Zog, was significant for several reasons. It gave the new management team of Andrew Strauss, the captain, and Andy Flower, the team director, a winning start and therefore a platform of sorts on which to build; and it was achieved largely because of the efforts of the minor characters.
Two players were making their first Test appearance, two were playing in a home Test for the first time. Of these one, Tim Bresnan, barely had an opportunity but the other three – Ravi Bopara, Graeme Swann and Graham Onions – were out- rageous successes. For the selectors it was like getting a 500-1 treble up, though they naturally would see them as dead certs rather than gambles.
Success for each means different things for England. Bopara batted sublimely at No 3, beginning to fulfil the rich promise of his youth. Flower was delighted by his innings of 143, whose significance was multiplied because it was made with England in parlous circumstances.
"It was a lovely innings to watch," he said. "He was an artist painting a lovely picture in that innings. He didn't surpass my expectations. I would say that he handled himself and the transformation from Twenty20 cricket, which he has been playing for the last month, to Test cricket very well.
"He left beautifully outside off stump, moved his feet beautifully forward and back. I rate him very highly. His talent threshold is very high but only he will determine how far his career goes. But again, this is just a start for him."
But there is more to Bopara than a silken method and obvious skills. He has abundant belief which he seems instinctively to know how to channel. It may help that he will have the unbridled support of Flower. The pair played at Essex together and Flower said he knew the first time he saw Bopara in the nets as a 17-year-old that he had something special.
"Temperament is very important," Flower said. "Of course, you have to have the physical or technical threshold. He is obviously well past that and he showed that he has the temperament to do it. I like his attitude but in a nice way. There's a confidence about him but not an arrogance. So I think he gets the blend right and he's a popular member of the changing room because of it."
Bopara demonstrated his temperament when approaching his century on Wednesday. He wanted to reach it with a single so he could run down the pitch. That is precisely what he did and it showed, as Flower said, how calmly he was thinking.
If some have expressed mild doubts about Bopara at three, Flower dispelled them. "I think he can be tight there. Part of the reason he was picked there is because he can play a variety of innings."
It seems that Bopara benefited from his experiences in the Indian Premier League and certainly did not appear to suffer a jot from going straight into Test cricket from Twenty20.
"He mentioned to me that he thought he did come out of the IPL feeling more relaxed about his game," said Flower. "Playing in front of those crowds, all the noise and excitement, but also playing with some very great players, playing with and against great players, seeing how they behave in the changing room or how they practise, did help to relax him."
The performance of Onions was welcome because it showed that England might have the necessary depth of bowling resources, which will be essential in this summer of summers. He was a smart choice because he was in form and the selectors listened to the batsmen who were telling them.
Onions looks as if he needs the ball to swing. When the pitch grew flatter on Friday evening he was a little less assured. But this is to cavil. To have taken seven wickets on debut was all he and the selectors could have hoped.
"I did play a little bit against him," said Flower. "I like his character, he's quite fiery, he's aggressive. I don't think he gives up easily and he has got his feet firmly on the floor. That's a nice, solid base from which to work."
And then there was Swann, man of the match for his six wickets and his 63 not out at No 9. He is a deep-thinking, intelligent cricketer (though he may carefully avoid giving that impression), a handful for left-handers of whom West Indies have an abundance and Australia also have plenty.
It is difficult to avoid concluding that England are deadly serious about playing two spinners (Swann plus Monty Panesar) at some if not all subsequent stages of the season. "There was a strong possibility that we would play two spinners at Lord's," said Flower. "We quite liked the balance to our attack that it gave us in the Trinidad Test. It covers all options."
So far, so good and England, remembering that West Indies shelled six catches which made a substantial difference, should win in Chester-le-Street starting on Thursday, doubtless picking from the same 12. None of this means that they will beat Australia later in the summer. But it means they have a chance.
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