Weak opposition not the only tale of Vaughan's magical summer

There is a danger that the current weakness of the West Indies side will be allowed to compromise the true value of what Michael Vaughan's England have achieved both in the Caribbean last winter and now in England this summer.

There is a strong undercurrent of feeling that says that it's all very well to beat the West Indies, but that these results are hardly relevant when it comes to judging the side against Australia. That moment of truth will arrive next year when the Australians come here for a five-match series for the Ashes. Before that, South Africa have to be beaten during the winter.

In spite of the relatively poor opposition, England have made great strides in recent months. First, the side has a more settled look to it than it has for a long time. The selectors are no longer having to chop and change in desperation.

Not only are the same players being called up on a regular basis, but also in every department there is excellent reserve strength.

The way in which Andrew Strauss, Robert Key and now Ian Bell have taken their chances has meant that England have continued to prosper although two important middle order batsmen, Mark Butcher and Graham Thorpe are both out of the side with injuries. Butcher's place may even be under threat for the South African tour.

The fast bowling is in good hands with either Jimmy Anderson or Simon Jones as the first reserve and if anything should happen to Geraint Jones behind the stumps, there is always Chris Read to fall back on.

One of the keys to England's recent run of success has been the speed at which "Freddie" Flintoff has developed and matured both as a batsman and a bowler. His present form gives the side ballast, stability and flexibility as high class all-rounders always do.

Winning has now become a habit and this summer England have beaten New Zealand and the West Indies with style and conviction. The side knows how to win, which was something that was lacking during Mike Atherton's long tenure in office.

If England win in South Africa, as they should, they will take on their oldest enemy next summer full of confidence.

With every outing the fast bowlers are looking more disciplined. Ashley Giles has been a revelation with both his off-spin and his batting. The bowlers all feed off each other and they are backed up by brilliant fielding.

In this last Test, Key failed with the bat and then on the second afternoon threw himself to his left at backward square leg and brought off a staggering catch to send back Shivnarine Chanderpaul. It was the sort of catch that changes the course of matches and can only help an already vibrant team spirit.

England's cricketers may have faced weak opposition this summer, but they have been developing all the right sort of habits and, perhaps most important of all, their confidence is sky high.

They have become a combination that even the Australians, backed by their all-powerful propaganda machine, may find harder to break down than they anticipate.

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