By David de Winter – Sports Writer @davidjdewinter
Cricket is a game of fine margins. Matches, even series turn on a crucial decision, an important wicket, a dogged innings or a dropped catch. This is the difference between success and failure. One regularly hears soundbites from cricketers referring to the importance of momentum. It may sound like a cliché but it is true. Start a match, an innings, a series well and the pressure is on the opposition, and pressure does funny things to professional sportsmen. Those who cannot deal with it play the situation instead of the game.
England’s results this summer have all hinged on key passages of play. They were unfairly maligned in defeat to Sri Lanka at Headingly. What if James Anderson had managed to block out those final two deliveries from Shaminda Eranga? It would surely be talked about as one of the greatest rear-guard actions ever. Moreoever, at the time, an inexperienced England were still dealing with the ‘retirements’ of their best batsman and frontline spinner.
Equally, their victory over a dreadful Indian side has been, but should not be, over-hyped. If Ravindra Jadeja hadn’t shelled that catch off Alastair Cook at The Rose Bowl and if Ian Bell had been given out when plumb LBW on nought in the same game, then the series would have ploughed a very different course. Full credit to England for making the most of those reprieves but it just goes to show the significance of just one delivery on a whole series. As one should not overreact when England have the odd bad day, one should also not be tempted to foist hyperbolic sentiments on players after a couple of good performances.
Once England were victorious at The Rose Bowl there was only going to be one winner in the series. Yes the Indians’ heads dropped but England had the positive momentum going into those final two tests and it proved decisive. Nevertheless the British press are getting far too carried away with this series victory. England won and won well but on helpful pitches against a side which rarely play in swinging conditions. Just a month ago, this England team was in turmoil – now one month on everything is dandy? I’m not buying it.
There are only six players who should be assured of their places in the England side. Captain Alastair Cook, whilst he has had a pretty nightmarish time since winning the Ashes last summer, is still the man for the job and his vast experience at the top of the order is vital. Gary Ballance and Joe Root have both proved this summer that they have not only the talent but the temperament to feature in this England team long-term. Ian Bell is the country’s most talented batsman and although he has had a lean year by his recent high standards, he must still be one of the first names on the team sheet. Lastly, the new-ball pairing of James Anderson and Stuart Broad have no equal in world cricket save for Dale Steyn and ball-tampering expert, Vernon Philander. The other five spots are most definitely up for grabs.
England don’t play another Test match for eight months, concentrating all their efforts on winning the World Cup, which, given their terrible recent record, is no bad thing. Therefore there is plenty of time for individuals to play themselves in, and out of the team. Sam Robson has been given a chance at the top of the order and has not staked his claim. The alternatives are thin on the ground. Alex Hales (good eye, dodgy technique) has been mentioned as has Jamie Vince of Hampshire – I wouldn’t fancy any of them against a rampant Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris next summer.
‘The Beard’ Moeen Ali has had a solid start to his test career. 19 series wickets against any Indian side is no mean feat but it has to be considered in context – as does his batting which has received particularly unjust criticism. As an all-rounder, Ali cannot be expected to be brilliant in everything he does. He more than justifying his inclusion as a bowler – likewise his batting almost saved England the game at Headingly against Sri Lanka earlier in the summer. A bowling average of 28 and a batting average of 31 are more than respectable. At this point in his England career, Andrew Flintoff could only dream of such statistics. Ali is not assured of his place come April but it is definitely his to lose.
It is too early to make informed judgements on Jos Buttler’s test future other than he has done all that has been asked of him with the gloves and he has contributed tellingly with the bat. If he continues in that vein then Matt Prior won’t be getting another look in any time soon. It is the back-up bowling that worries me the most. If either, or both Broad and Anderson get injured (touch wood) then opposition opening batsmen are hardly going to have sleepless nights at the prospect of facing Chris Jordan, Chris Woakes, Liam Plunkett and Ben Stokes. Steven Finn is the key. He might go for a few runs but he always takes wickets. His test strike-rate is an astonishing 48. That’s a whole ten balls fewer that Anderson over whom he also has a superior overall bowling average.
This summer England tried to do a ‘Mitchell Johnson’ by getting Liam Plunkett to bounce out opposition batsmen as they themselves had been over the winter. Why? a) Plunkett possesses nowhere near the talent of Johnson and b) that tactic isn’t effective in England. It is no coincidence that when Plunkett got injured and England chose Chris’s Woakes and Jordan and went back to swinging and seaming the ball off a length, they proceeded to win three tests on the trot in relative comfort.
Speaking of Woakes and Jordan, they too are yet to prove themselves worthy of a permanent place in England’s pace attack. Both are good batsmen (Woakes could probably be classed as an all-rounder) and both bring different attributes to the table: Woakes an ability to swing the ball at pace; Jordan seems to hurry and surprise batsman whether it be skid or bounce. Jordan is a work in progress – he still bowls too many ‘four’ balls whereas Woakes is more the finished article. However I get the impression Woakes is too up-and-down, too predictable. He is very consistent but he doesn’t quite have that X-Factor, that magic ball which is going to change a match. One could never imagine him running through a team. I am not unhappy to see him in the England team, he offers a lot to the side, but if Finn were to get his mojo back then he would be a much more dangerous prospect.
This England team was not a bad team after the defeat to Sri Lanka, yet they are not now the world-beaters the press would have one believe. As the old saying goes, one series win against a sub-standard India team does not a great team make. England must perform consistently home and away if they are to compete regularly with the world’s best and regain their status as the world’s best team. The real test comes next summer against the Australians.
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