What have we learnt in the Caribbean?
Ahead of Friday's finale, Stephen Brenkley looks back on a troubled tour to identify the lessons England – and all cricket fans – can take into the blockbuster summer ahead
Thursday 02 April 2009
1. Strauss and Flower make a dynamic duo
From day one, when he took over in circumstances in which he had no desire to take over, Andy Flower has cut an impressive figure. England have gone through a tumultuous period of late and it has been difficult for players and staff.
Flower has developed a strong relationship with Andrew Strauss, who himself demonstrated that he might (perhaps should) have been captain two years ago. They brought to their roles a well-rounded but hard-nosed aspect.
They showed they were unafraid to take tough decisions – for instance, the dropping of Ian Bell and Monty Panesar, two players who still have big futures – and they have stamped their authority on the England squad. Formal interviews for the team director's post are taking place in London next week with a very short shortlist likely to contain no more than four names. A decision will be made before the home series against West Indies begins.
Flower is tough and mature and he knows the game of cricket inside out. He will also lend vital stability at a time when that particular quality has never been more in demand. It is entirely right and proper that England are trawling the world for a coach at present after the last one, Peter Moores, was virtually ushered into the job without interview only for it to end in tears. But the man for the job is under their noses.
2. First match of a series means everything
England have had far too much practice at hitting the ground hobbling. Their failure to win the first match of the Test series for the 14th successive occasion had significant consequences for the rest of the tour.
West Indies' spectacular win in Kingston, when an inspired spell of bowling by Jerome Taylor (which he never came close to repeating) dumped the tourists out for 51, enabled them to dictate terms thereafter. A succession of anodyne pitches meant large numbers of runs and small numbers of wickets, and ultimately a lost series.
It would have been different had England not lost the first Test and it was at last recognised that it could not be entirely coincidence that it keeps happening. Perhaps it is down to failure to prepare properly, to lack of match fitness, to a relaxed mental state – but Flower realised that it could not be allowed to continue.
3. Pietersen and headlines were made for each other
It is a mutual attraction. Kevin Pietersen likes headlines and headlines love him. Occasionally, this has a discombobulating effect on the side.
England either have to learn to live with it or without it. Pietersen's individual preparation and performance are all but faultless but there are increasing signs of impatience and frustration. This story is not over yet by a long chalk.
4. Flintoff should move down the order
It has become something of an arf-arf joke to refer to Andrew Flintoff as the talismanic all-rounder. He is the all-rounder who does not score any runs and does not take any wickets and without whom England win more often than they do with him.
True, Flintoff needs more runs; true, he has to take more wickets. But he remains a warrior-like cricketer who plays with every ounce of his being. When Flintoff plays he spares nothing.
The short-term answer may be to put him at No 7 where there would be less pressure than in the exalted No 6 position and it may help him to play with a less cluttered mind. At present he is uncertain: does he bat properly or simply try to hit the bejaysus out of it?
As a bowler, the captain, whoever he is, has to decide what they want him to be. Since he is clearly not a strike bowler he may as well be used as a containing one, which can bring its own rewards. His accuracy and bounce and occasional reverse swing are not to be underestimated.
One day, it is said, England will have to do without him, but that day has not arrived yet.
5. Two left-handed openers are not perfect
Should we open with two lefties? The obvious answer is that it scarcely matters. Since Strauss and Alastair Cook performed admirably in this series (541 runs and 384 runs in nine Test innings each) they are in for the foreseeable future in any case.
But the nature of their dismissals in the opening match is worth bearing in mind. They have similar fallibilities and one wicket lost to the new ball can swiftly become two. Bowlers do not have to change their line of attack.
Ideally, a right-hand, left-hand combination works. This has not mattered too much in recent years and Strauss' partnership with Marcus Trescothick (both left-handers) was extremely effective. With the Aussies coming to town, however, there may be cause to doubt the strategy by the end of the summer.
6. Harmison may never be the bowler he was
Poor Stephen Harmison gets the blame for far too many of England's failings. Unfortunately, he embodies their consistent inability to take 20 wickets, which is the usual prerequisite to win any Test match.
Since that glorious morning in Kingston in 2004 when he pulverised the West Indies batting the weight of expectation has been on him. Often he has delivered – and his contribution to the 2005 Ashes victory should never be underestimated.
But often he has not and the evidence of this tour was that he may not do so again. For England to have a real chance of coming back on the surfaces provided, given the lack of a magical spinner, they needed Harmison to get something out of them.
He played in only two of the Tests and was rarely threatening. His pace was habitually down in the low eighties, which is not what he is meant to be about. England are certainly less effective without him operating at full tilt but he will need to demonstrate very soon indeed that he is still capable of bowling at 90mph and extracting that vicious bounce or it could be curtains.
7. The one-day strategy needs a rethink
England remain a work in progress – without the progress. Some of the cricket has been sloppy to the point of embarrassment and the new management team must put in place a proper strategy. They are not sure whether to follow the rest of the world or their instincts, and end up doing neither.
8. Prior deserves to wear the gloves
Matt Prior looks as though he could be a genuine No 6 batsman, somebody who knows his way round the crease and understands the team's demands. He would not be an all-time great No 6 but he could grow into a dependable one.
Unfortunately, he is paid to keep wicket well and his inconsistency, sometimes bordering on ineptitude, has not abated. In the final Test he seriously threatened the 75-year-old world byes record.
England, however, should stick with him. They cannot keep changing their keepers and there is nobody discernibly better at the joint role. Prior will take some spectacular catches: he must learn to stay lower longer while up to the stumps, but the next time he shells one mutter under your breath that Alan Knott did not take every single chance.
9. County cricket still produces good players
Step forward Graeme Swann. Always a breath of fresh air as a chap to have around, he demonstrated that he is a clever, thoughtful, skilful cricketer – attributes honed in 10 years of county cricket. He recognises the virtues of sitting in as an off-spin bowler but can also make things happen.
It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that England can at least contemplate, for the first time in 25 years, using two spinners regularly in Test matches. They may then reject the idea but Swann could yet play the 40 or so Tests predicted for him as a teenager.
10. Fitness is everything
This seems to be a lesson never learnt, this time in the incarnation of Ryan Sidebottom. From day one it was revealed that he had a chronic Achilles tendon injury which needed careful handling.
He played in three of the five matches, including the abandoned match in Antigua, but never looked at the races. His pace was down, his swing was intermittent. And then he went home.
11. Schedules have to be improved
The Test series was just about acceptable, with a proper build-up and the back-to-back nature of the matches is now the norm. England were not ready for the start, but that is their fault.
The long gaps between matches in the one-day series – three lots of five days from Sunday to Friday – made for a strange existence for players. The best way to conduct a one-day series is on a "play, practise, travel" basis.
12. Video referrals are hilarious but irritating
In a couple of decades it may be wondered why there was such a fuss about the umpire review system, otherwise known as referrals. But it does not work at present, which is both hilarious and irritating. It was not so much that the teams had no clue when and what to refer (and they did not) but that often the eventual decision was at best debatable.
Now it is being suggested that umpires, not players, should ask for reviews – but do not think for a moment the players would do anything other than put them under enormous pressure. Trying to reach the correct verdict is obviously in the game's interests but the solution is no nearer.
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