When assessing the strength of a Premier League football club, experts often mention the quality of a team's bench.
This is because over the course of a long, physically demanding series of games, fitness and form make it almost impossible for a club to consistently field its strongest side and it is the ability of the players who sit patiently on the sidelines to seamlessly fill holes that often dictates how successful a team is.
With this proviso in mind it can safely be said that English cricket is currently in very good shape. Over the past two months, during an almost flawless Ashes campaign in Australia, the England cricket team has shown that its bench is pretty darn good.
The sides selected by Andrew Strauss in Australia have remained relatively stable, with the only changes being the introductions of Chris Tremlett and Tim Bresnan for the injured Stuart Broad and the weary Steven Finn. To their huge credit, Tremlett and Bresnan, at short notice, entered the biggest stage they are likely to play on and performed with distinction. The displays of these two players not only speak volumes for the ability of the pair but also the quality of those responsible for preparing them – England's back-room staff. Such is the belief in the work that this group performs, England supporters would be fully confident that had the three non-playing members of the initial 16-man party – reserve batsman Eoin Morgan, reserve spinner Monty Panesar and reserve wicketkeeper Steven Davies – been required during the Ashes, they would have coped admirably.
With the possible exception of the Ashes-winning side of 2005, I cannot remember a better prepared, more focused and purposeful England side than that which has just hammered Australia. The victory is a triumph for Strauss and Andy Flower, England's excellent head coach. The planning and preparation for this Ashes series were meticulous. The selection of the squad was thoughtful and inspired. Every coverable eventuality was covered and the pre-tour assessments of the conditions were precise. The fringe squad members, like Britain's armed forces, were kept primed in tip-top condition just in case they were needed in action.
England's support staff is often criticised for being too big but on this tour it has fully justified its existence. Graham Gooch, David Saker, Mushtaq Ahmed, Bruce French and Richard Halsall have ensured that technically every aspect of England's cricket has been supported. Halsall, England's fielding coach, should receive special credit because the performance in the field has been magnificent.
I believe that there is no better indicator of a team's spirit and togetherness than the quality and intensity of its fielding. Cricketers are not selected for their fielding; they are picked for what they offer as batsmen, bowlers and wicketkeepers. Fielding, therefore, is something a player gives to the team for free.
The energy emitted by this England side has been almost tangible. They have looked an athletic, motivated and committed side because they are one, and nowhere has this been more clearly visible than when they were swarming all over Ricky Ponting's side in the field.
The most noticeable aspect of this improvement has been the quality of the team's catching, which has been excellent, but it is not the only indicator. England's ground fielding has been superb, too. The team is athletic and agile, and throws to wicketkeeper Matt Prior from the outfield have been consistently fast, flat and over the stumps.
The improved athleticism can be put down to the work of Huw Bevan, England's strength and conditioning coach. The fitness training of cricketers has moved on from completing hundreds of press-ups and sit-ups in a dusty indoor school followed by a run round Regent's Park. Modern training methods are precise and they prepare players to dive full length in one movement, pick themselves up and send a bullet throw at the stumps.
Bevan, along with England's physiotherapist and masseur, should also be congratulated for making sure the team stay fit and fresh. Keeping a player on the park is often a mental battle as much as a physical one.
No player has given more to these aspects of England's cricket than Paul Collingwood. In the field, he continues to set the benchmark of the standard England players should aim for. And fitness wise, even pushing 35, he looks as though he would top most assessments. Amazingly, Collingwood's smooth, natural fielding is the antithesis of his batting, which has invariably been chunky and workmanlike.
The Durham man has given an enormous amount to the England Test team since his debut in 2003 and the success he has had should offer huge encouragement to every wholehearted competitor not blessed with the natural talent of figures such as Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Kevin Pietersen. Sport at the highest level is not filled with amazing athletes with ability to burn. Yes, a certain level of talent is required, but the apex of sport essentially contains men and women who are proud, ambitious, hard-working, determined and focused, and these are the qualities Collingwood possesses in abundance.
So, having achieved the huge prize of an Ashes win in Australia, what is the next challenge for Strauss and his side? While England have been defeating the old enemy, the two highest-ranked Test sides in the world, India and South Africa, have been battling it out in South Africa in a high-quality and keenly fought contest. If Strauss and Flower are to achieve their ultimate aim – to be the No 1 Test team in the world – those two sides have to be overcome.
Prior to the Ashes, the ability of England's fast bowlers to adapt to conditions overseas was questioned, but their performances in Australia have shown how versatile they have become. James Anderson has led the way on this front and he is now the finished article. But it is not just the quality of Anderson's bowling that makes him so indispensable, it is the fact he has happily taken on the responsibility of leading and advising England's attack.
Much of Anderson's work goes unnoticed because cameras tend not to focus on what mid-on is doing between balls delivered by Broad, Tremlett, Bresnan or Finn. In most overs, Anderson can be seen having a quiet word with his protégés.
Australia tried to be cute with England's bowling attack on this tour. In previous Ashes series, the pitches used have been dry and true, surfaces on which the home side backed bowlers such as Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne to outbowl their opponents. The reason why spicier, grassy pitches were produced was a deliberate attempt to negate Graeme Swann, the best spinner on show, and encourage their own fast bowlers.
The plan backfired because England, in the form of Anderson, Broad, Tremlett, Bresnan, Finn, Ajmal Shahzad and Graham Onions, have a squad of fast bowlers the envy of any country in the world.
It is not only in fast bowling where England have bench strength. Talented young batsmen such as Morgan, Ravi Bopara, James Hildreth, Ben Stokes and James Taylor are keen and ready to replace Collingwood. Panesar is an excellent second spinner to Swann and Davies, Craig Kieswetter or James Foster are more than capable of filling in for Prior.
Defeating India in England this summer is the next big cricketing challenge for Strauss and Flower, but before then, and after long and well deserved celebrations in Sydney, they need to keep the focus of their players on Team England. Michael Vaughan and Duncan Fletcher failed to do this in 2005 and performances fell away. Judging by the way this tour has been organised, however, you feel this is another thing Strauss and Flower have planned for and will execute successfully.Reuse content