Don’t Get Carried Away

8 09 2007

And so England’s long summer of cricket ends with a well-deserved victory in the NatWest Series against India. Much will rightly be made out of the poor umpiring decisions (Tendulkar being given out, yet again, when he was not, and Uthappa escaping a very clear edge to the keeper), but that should not overshadow the result. England deserved the win, they played the better cricket, not only today, but throughout the series. Poor umpiring didn’t cost India the victory today, very fine bowling by England and some poor shot-making by the likes of Ganguly did. Speaking of Ganguly, India were highly dependent throughout the series on the three old warhorses, Ganguly, Dravid and Tendulkar. Not really a surprise when you look at their records, but the fact England relied more on teamwork, on the whole team working well as a unit, makes them worthy winners.

Ian Bell might have top-scored in the series (and I always said once he got that maiden ODI century he’d start showing his quality) but other players like Owais Shah (who had a good series against the West Indies tool), Ravi Bopara (who’s looking like a fantastic all round cricketer), Stuart Broad (likewise, and like Ravi, one with a lot of years to get better) and Dimi can all look back on some simply awesome performances. When you consider that this England team was guilty, before the new regime, of relying far too heavily on KP during 50-over matches, and that he had, by his own standards, a poor series, the fact that England won shows that they’re on the right track.

However it is important, just as it was when England won the Ashes in 2005, not to get carried away. Just as then England had not magically become the best side in the world (although I do think the 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Australia in the return series had more to do with Australian brilliance, being fired up by that defeat, and poor selection, rather than poor performances by England) they haven’t entirely turned the corner just yet. India are the sort of side that gift you 30 or 40 runs in the field, and yet, despite that, England could not hammer home a 3-1 advantage, instead scraping to a 4-3 victory. Australia, the paragon of cricket that all teams compare themselves to, would never have let a 3-1 advantage come even close to slipping.

There are obvious reasons for this failure by England, however. Without wishing to make excuses, Flintoff has become a crucial part of the bowling unit and was sorely missed in the last two games. The bowling, in terms of seamers, at least, looks a lot better with Anderson and Broad opening (and they look like a solid opening pair), Flintoff at first change, and Dimi up next, with Collingwood, Ravi Bopara and possibly Wright offering medium-pace backup.

Sadly, however, Monty has had a summer to forget about. After a superb Test series against the Windies he was highly ineffective (as usual) in the One Day games, and took that poor form into the Test series against India. Although, to be fair, he didn’t bowl terribly in the Tests, he wasn’t the consistent threat you expect, suggesting a possible mental frailty. More importantly, he hasn’t learnt to adapt his art to One Day cricket and bowls far too quickly, not giving the ball air or a chance to turn. I do strongly believe he has the talent to be a genuinely world class bowler in both forms of the game, however the series in Sri Lanka will prove the test. England will need him firing if they’re to have a hope.

Likewise Sri Lanka will prove a stern test for an inexperienced batting lineup. The heat, coupled with pitches that may not offer much assistance to seamers (who will nonetheless be a threat thanks to the swing-friendly humid conditions, and reverse-swing friendly dusty conditions) but will turn huge, and bowlers like Malinga, Vaas and Murali, will test every aspect of batsmen’s ability. In particular Alistair Cook will need to learn to play spin a lot better, because at the moment he is incapable of sweeping convincingly. The biggest sole reason for England’s problems throughout the summer has been the opening partnerships in both forms of the game. Without a solid foundation it’s hard to win matches.

Where Cook is excellent in Test cricket, he’s struggled a lot in One Day matches (despite getting a hundred against India in the first ODI), and Matt Prior has yet to show he is an international quality batsman-wicketkeeper, let alone opening the batting. In Test matches it’s an easy choice, Strauss drops out and Vaughan opens (which is where he has had most of his success in Test matches, including Man of the Series in a losing cause in Australia) with Cook, Flintoff takes Strauss’ position in the team and it’s sorted. In One Day cricket, however, it’s much more tricky. Should Bell be moved up? It would certainly deal with the issue of having too many mid-to-lower-order batsmen with Bell, Pietersen, Collingwood, Bopara, Flintoff, Shah and Mascarenhas all fighting for a few places. I think the team that played today, with Bopara coming in for Wright, and Bell moving up to open, may be England’s best eleven One Day players, but does that make it England’s best team? The two are not the same thing, after all.

However there are a lot more positives than negatives I believe. Bell looks to be finally imposing himself on matches, whether this is a result of KP’s influence on the man he so often bats with, or whether it’s the effect of that maiden ODI ton, and definitely has the technical ability to be one of the very best batsmen in the world. Batting down the order in Tests also seems to suit him and, all in all, he’s had a very good summer. Owais Shah has returned to the England setup with a bang, Bopara has continued to mature after a fantastic World Cup and Dimi has lived up the hype. He’s been around the scene for a while, with many saying he should have been playing for England long before now, and so often when that happens the player turns out not to be that good. Mascarenhas, however, has added yet another power-hitter to England’s batting (and with Pietersen, Fred and Dimi, England now have serious genuine firepower for six-hitting) and also bowled tight overs giving England control at crucial times.

However, I think the biggest boost has been finding an opening bowling pair that looks solid. With Broad and Anderson bowling, India averaged just 44-1 during the first 10 overs. That is just excellent. Not only does this prevent the opponents getting off to a complete flier, getting that early wicket makes life easier for the first-change bowlers. If Flintoff can remain fit and be England’s first change along with Mascarenhas, that is 20 overs worth of solid seamers, which takes care of the powerplay overs. There is no “weak-link” to target in those four either, which makes it easier for Monty and even Collingwood to be genuine threats. And if I may, the last word has to go to the captain. For far too long England have been carrying One Day captains who have not performed but kept being selected because they were captain. Colly has changed this, with his batting, bowling and fielding all being excellent. His captaincy has also been top class, and in his hands the future looks bright.



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