Verdict on England's summer Tests: Good, but will have to do better...
Once the ball-tampering controversy has died down, England will reflect on a summer of stuttering progress. With the Ashes just around the corner, they must raise their game quickly
The ball-tampering controversy that brought a shambolic and unwelcome end to England's summer of Test cricket has, for the first time in months, taken attention away from this winter's battle for the Ashes. Yet that is the prize England will be competing for in the next Test they play at The Gabba in Brisbane on 23 November 2006. By then, the unsavoury events of the past three days will be long forgotten and cricket fans will be immersing themselves in leg, rather than political, spin.
The Gabba has become the permanent venue for the first Test of an Australia summer and, having remained unbeaten there in 17 matches, it is easy to see why. England have won only two Tests in Queensland in the last 70 years and, after an erratic summer against Sri Lanka and Pakistan, they will need to improve if they are to keep the urn out of Ricky Ponting's hands.
England won three and lost one of the six Tests they played this summer - I am not counting the forfeited victory at the Oval - but their cricket has, at times, been far from convincing. On the occasions when they played to their potential, England were very good, closely resembling the team that defeated Australia in 2005. But there were days when they were poor, producing performances that would have resulted in certain defeat against the world champions.
It is the inconsistent nature of the team that will be causing Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, the biggest concern as he turns his attention to the Ashes. Fletcher accepts that the side he selects in Brisbane will not contain three of last summer's heroes. Michael Vaughan has already been ruled out and, despite making positive noises, Ashley Giles and Simon Jones have little chance of making England's Ashes squad, as does James Anderson.
Before assessing the fitness of Giles, Jones and Anderson, England need to select a captain. Injury undermined much of the team's cricket during the Test and one-day series against Sri Lanka and it resulted in Andrew Flintoff and Andrew Strauss sharing the responsibilities.
Strauss, with two comprehensive victories over Pakistan, made the bigger impression yet it is Flintoff who is expected to lead the team in Australia. Flintoff's fitness will not have been confirmed when the England selectors sit down to make their decision, but he is desperate to captain the side in Australia, and depriving him of that honour may be risky.
Whether Flintoff can handle all the attention that comes his way is another matter. The Australian public and media will make it their business to agitate and distract the all-rounder and it will be interesting to see how he copes. Flintoff was given a glimpse of what may lie ahead when he played against Australia for the Rest of the World in October 2005. He spent little more than a fortnight in Melbourne and Sydney but the constant attention he received nearly brought him to boiling point.
Despite an appalling run of luck with injury, England used only 15 players, and they managed to find out quite a lot about those in the seven Tests they played. Kevin Pietersen was England's star batsman of the summer scoring over 700 runs at an average of about 60. Strauss played well, too, accumulating 600 runs in his 12 innings.
The opener struck two centuries while captain, performances that suggest the leadership will not have a detrimental effect on his form. But we already knew how well they could play, and it was the batting displays of Alastair Cook, Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood that indicated England will score plenty of runs over the coming years. Cook continued to impress. He may not be the most elegant player, and he needs to improve his play of spin, particularly leg-spin, but he has a superb temperament.
Flintoff's injury gave Bell an opportunity to shine and he did not waste his chance, scoring three consecutive hundreds against Pakistan. The innings should ensure him of a place in the first Test against Australia and it will be interesting to see whether the effects of a disappointing Ashes series in 2005 can be corrected.
Collingwood continues to make the most of his ability, with the highlight of his summer being the 186 he scored against Pakistan at Lord's. His gritty competitiveness and superb work ethic symbolise the strengths of this England team but he will probably make way for Flintoff in Brisbane.
Collingwood could keep hold of his place if England decide to play four bowlers at The Gabba, but this would be a negative move for a team whose best chance of retaining the Ashes is to attack. The decision would also place a heavy workload on Flintoff as a bowler, something England would be reluctant to do.
Marcus Trescothick was the only batsman to fail. After a traumatic winter, in which he returned home early from England's tour of India, the opener scored a hundred against Sri Lanka. But in the next six Tests he accumulated only 217 runs at an average of 19.7. Trescothick's weight seemed to be on his back foot and it is a problem he must address before he arrives in Oz.
It is Fletcher's obsession with having a number eight who can bat that raises the possibility of England reducing their bowling options even though they play their best cricket with a five-man attack. It was hoped that Liam Plunkett would fill the hole left by Giles but his batting has been unreliable to date.
The dilemma places unfair pressure on Monty Panesar, who was, by some distance, England's bowler of the summer. It would be unrealistic to expect Panesar to travel to Australia and compete with Shane Warne but, since his debut in India, he has given his team exactly what they want, namely control and the ability to take wickets. Australia's batsmen will attempt to unsettle Panesar by attacking him whenever they can, but the way in which he bowled against Pakistan suggests he has the nous and ability to cope.
It would be interesting to see who England would pick if Giles proved his fitness. Fletcher is a huge fan of Giles, even though he must realise Panesar is a far better left-arm spinner. Selecting Giles would be a defensive alternative when England's best option is to attack.
England got by with a four-man attack against Pakistan but the performance of the seamers was sketchy. Stephen Harmison took 20 wickets against Pakistan but did not bowl particularly well.
On the hard, bouncy pitches of Australia, Harmison and Flintoff will be England's two most important bowlers and Kevin Shine, the bowling coach, needs to get them both fit and firing. Matthew Hoggard looked tired against Pakistan, and Australia, a destination where he took six wickets at 63 four years ago, will test him once again.
Plunkett's side injury gave Sajid Mahmood three Tests against Pakistan and he bowled a couple of good spells but the pair of them must become more consistent if they are to keep Stuart Broad out.
Chris Read benefited from England's last change of the summer, regaining the wicketkeeping position from Geraint Jones. Read looked good in the two Tests he played but he needs to keep performing because Jones will come into contention for Brisbane. Series result - sorry, 2-1 or 3-1 to Australia.
Possible side for Brisbane: A Flintoff (capt), M E Trescothick, A J Strauss, A N Cook, K P Pietersen, I R Bell, C M W Read (wkt), L E Plunkett, M J Hoggard, S J Harmison, M S Panesar.
Hits and misses: England's two big winners and an unlucky loser from an up and down summer
Monty Panesar: After 10 Tests he is already a fixture in the side. Potentially, England's best spinner since Derek Underwood.
Ian Bell: Test career looked in ruins when left out for Alastair Cook at the start of the summer. Andrew Flintoff's ankle injury gave him a chance and he has never looked back.
Marcus Trescothick: Despite a poor summer, England's most experienced player will open the batting in the first Ashes Test in Brisbane in November but he needs to score runs early in the series or the pressure will be on.
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