England's historic team speaks of stability, continuity and achievement. But when they take the field to start an extremely demanding Test series at Lord's on Thursday none of these qualities will be the prevailing feature.
Perhaps the best that can be said for the team, unchanged for the sixth time in succession unless personal catastrophe strikes, is that they are a work in progress. This might seem grudging towards a side who have won four out of the five matches they have been together but there could be a much more damning assessment.
England are now meeting opponents of high quality for the first time since last year. On the last two occasions it happened, against India at home late last summer and against Sri Lanka away in the early part of last winter, they lost. Now they face a confident South Africa.
Constant in personnel they may be but it is an artificial constancy. The fact is that everybody in England is waiting for the day when Andrew Flintoff returns. The insistence that all is hunky dory has also been dissipated by the urgent talks held last week over central contracts.
The England and Wales Cricket Board, poor lambs, issued a disclaimer that board and players were on a collision course, as one newspaper suggested. But that does not mean that players are content to be rushed, as they see it, into signing contracts, or that they have not been affected when they should be concentrating fully on one of the most important Test series of their lives.
No England side has been unchanged for more than five Tests in a row and the only incidence of that was in Australia 124 years ago, when there was little choice. Indeed, no Test team at any time has gone more than five matches without a change – including the great West Indies and Australia sides of recent vintage – so England will have a record to themselves.
And yet, it cannot truly be believed that they will start as anything more than marginal favourites against a South African team which looks as tough as teak and might possess skill with a similarly hard edge. Indeed, the odds might be tilted towards the tourists were it not for the fact that it is so hard to win away from home and that South Africa have blown several chances to win a series here in the four that they have played since their return to the international fold.
England have given a good public account of their unity but the results have belied their performances. They have simply not scored enough runs for a Test side that expect to knock over serious opposition. It has been 12 matches since England last passed 400 runs in the first innings, in which time there have been only four individual centuries, two of them scored by Kevin Pietersen, one by the wicketkeeper and the other by the captain as an act of defiance to show he still has what it takes.
Peter Moores, their coach, is aware that the perception of his side does not necessarily match their own assessment of recent achievements. "If it was easy to build great teams and great players, everybody would be doing it," he said. "But it has a time frame. As much as international sport doesn't want to give you the time frame, you have to try to keep winning along the way, but also say, 'well OK, I think we've got to keep doing this and we've got to back him or him', and help make some of the necessary steps.
"I've been looking at players' careers and comparing the first half to the second half. A lot of top-flight batters score a certain amount of runs in the first four or five years but then triple the number in the second half. People like Ricky Ponting and Matthew Hayden were good players but they became exceptional players. We have players like that but in so many ways you can't beat experience and giving experience. The key for me for a player is driving hard to perform but also being capable of clarifying what is happening to him, of learning every day."
If some of that was shrouded in coach speak, it is clear that Moores has the courage of his convictions, which is an admirable quality. It is also clear that England, Flintoff apart, may indeed have their best team on the field. The worrying feature of that is they may simply not be up to it, in which case it is the selectors' duty to try to find somebody else.
Moores was speaking after he gave a coaching masterclass on behalf of Sky Sports last week in which he had time to show why he is the appropriate choice for the job. There is a misguided belief that Moores is the sort of coach who wants to produce a series of automatons as cricketers. Not so. He wants to give them the tools to make the right choices, of shot or ball, at the right time. The batsmen will be given plenty of opportunity to make the right choice against South Africa's fearsome fast-bowling attack, the publicly declared method they intend to use to win the series.
"You make a promise to yourself at the start that you will have your principles and stick to them," said Moores. "In so many ways in international cricket you've got to try not to be influenced by the good or the bad."
South Africa are beatable and if they take a lead it does not mean they cannot be caught. They have been caught too many times before in England to be at all confident. But their captain, Graeme Smith, is a mightily impressive figure who will match England's Michael Vaughan in every department.
Moores, gently pressed, predicts England will win the series 2-1. This might be taken as a coach predicting defeat for his side, which seems peculiar. It is in fact a realistic analysis of the opposition and what they have at their disposal. It is one – if the run of six fails to become seven because Flintoff returns by the second of the four Tests – with which it is possible to agree.
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