'The Australians are something else, but...'
The real test: Are we in fantasy England, or can the Ashes be regained? Three experts put the summer in perspective
Sunday 08 August 2004
England could make history this summer by winning seven successive Test matches at home, but just how good are they?
John Emburey (former England off-spinner, now coach of Middlesex): They are obviously good because they are beating what is put in front of them. They have the knack of finding key players, Stephen Harmison and Andrew Flintoff, and the people who are being brought in have immediately done well, Andrew Strauss, Geraint Jones, Robert Key. And now Ashley Giles has taken pressure off himself.
Nick Knight (former England batsman, now captain of Championship leaders Warwickshire): They are playing very well indeed and doing everything they possibly can do. Duncan Fletcher, the coach, will be leaving nothing to chance and they recognise strengths and weaknesses. They are a strong unit and they are becoming a very good side with more to come.
Mickey Stewart (former England manager): I have always believed you are as good as your results, and England's have been excellent. This goes back to that wonderful comeback win against South Africa in the final Test at The Oval last summer. Don't look back, look forward.
Is there anyone out there pushing at the door to get in?
Emburey: There are a lot of good young players around the country at present but many members of the current team are also relatively young. It is entirely possible that some will go by the wayside, but there is obviously a desire to keep the side together. Ian Bell, the Warwickshire batsman, is one who is doing things right, and with somebody like Key the selectors clearly kept him in mind, reasoned that he was a good player and waited for him to find his best form.
Knight: County cricket is full of capable players who are doing well. Bell has had a very good summer with Warwickshire, but it's not because I want to keep him in the county team (which I do) that makes me say I think that the selectors have got it right in overlooking him for the Champions Trophy squad. Ian is still maturing as a cricketer and he will not only play for England but has the prospect of having one of the best careers. Picking him at the right time is what is important, when he is still in form. Of the bowlers, I like Jonathan Lewis of Gloucestershire, who bowls wicket-taking balls and does not go round the park.
Stewart: Well, they have already brought in Strauss and Key and there is Ed Smith, of Kent, still out there as well. Bell is the one everybody talks about and if he isn't yet quite ready, he is definitely knocking on the door. I like the way Kabir Ali of Worcestershire hits the deck, and while it is early days for Sajid Mahmood at Lancashire he is clearly one to watch. Down the line a bit, Durham's Liam Plunkett has every chance.
How is Michael Vaughan's captaincy progressing?
Emburey: He has had scope to experiment a little bit, which comes from having a winning side. Sometimes you can be lucky as a captain when you happen to have the players. When he does make changes they work, rather than not work. His laid-back style is different, but it's what was wanted at the time. Do not be fooled, either. I have been with him on an England A tour and he has a highly competitive instinct and knows what he wants.
Knight: Because of what he has achieved as a batsman he will have come into the job carrying huge respect from the other boys and that will definitely have helped him. He is probably a contrast to Nasser Hussain, but I think they have complemented each other extremely well. Nasser did great things for England knowing what was required then and it's led to Michael slotting in now.
Stewart: The lads obviously like playing under him. Of course, he is very different from Nasser, but Nasser took over when the side was in a bad trot and certain things needed doing. Vaughan has got a good blend of experience and youth under him and he has made a tremendous start. It's a job that is difficult when you start and gets more difficult as each year goes by.
What are the team's weaknesses and what can be done to correct them?
Emburey: I don't think there are any to speak of. When you're winning as England are they are not obvious. Look at the runs they have scored and the wickets they have taken and when they have done those things lately. There are perhaps one or two little areas in the fielding that need vigilance.
Knight: The blend between experience and youth has been of massive importance. I'm thinking particularly of Mark Butcher and Graham Thorpe in the experience department, who have done so much. Now, I know they have had to do without Butcher recently and Key went in at Lord's and did exceptionally well. But if something were to happen to Thorpe as well I hate to think what might happen. That's not a weakness you can legislate for, but it shows the brittle nature of teams. Youth and experience are crucial. Some people have mentioned the catching, but believe me Fletcher drills and drills on that. I'm not too worried about that, because catches do get dropped. Of course we don't want to be putting them down against Australia.
Stewart: Finger-spinning - and I mean finger-spinning, not wrist-spinning - is a dying art and has been for years. I am delighted for Ashley Giles, who has played a leading role in the last two victories, but that doesn't alter the basic fact. The country is short of spin, good spin, which in the proper conditions can still play a significant part. Fletcher has done tremendous work on the fielding, but in the last match we could have done a bit better. We've got to keep on top in that department.
How will England fare in South Africa this winter and can they possibly win the Ashes back next summer?
Emburey: They can beat South Africa but it will be difficult. England have the bowling make-up to benefit from their pitches and we have the ability to score runs at good tempo. Australia are something else, but we now have the talent and belief to be competitive and players like Freddie Flintoff at the peak of their game. It's what we all want, what we all talk about.
Knight: Our bowling attack will be dangerous in South African conditions and it's still a developing side. We can beat South Africa, and if we do the psychological effect on both sides next summer will be enormous. I see South Africa as a stepping stone to the Australians, but always remember, if we lose away it won't mean that we can't win at home.
Stewart: It revolves round the batting. If the batsmen can get to totals of 400 and more, then that puts you in the game straight away. We can beat both of them but they would both be great victories. England are getting better, and if they can force a win in South Africa they will recognise that while Australia have some great players they are not getting any better.
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