England must steel themselves for The Oval

Sean Beynon

August 26, 2002

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The death knell is a familiar sound for English cricket. It is tolled regularly by eager journalists when the home side fails. No batsmen, no bowlers, no hope.

Well, no actually. England were outplayed by an outstanding Indian performance, but there is no need for panic. Nasser Hussain's men have been improving since Duncan Fletcher donned his first England tracksuit, and they have continued to do so this summer.

The problem at Headingley was with the bowling. It is not for Hussain to make excuses, but there are some. With Andy Caddick and Alex Tudor making returns from injury, and Andrew Flintoff banging the ball in with a double hernia, it is perhaps not surprising that the Indians prospered. England's bowling was below par, and they were trumped by the most superbly dogged batting.

With Sachin Tendulkar and Saurav Ganguly's Saturday pyrotechnics, the efforts of Rahul Dravid and Sanjay Bangar could be easily forgotten. The second-wicket partnership was not flashy nor even, if truth be told, particularly entertaining, but it was vital. Dravid was typically proficient, whilst Bangar showed a determined eagerness which India's opening batsmen have recently lacked.

With the bat, England failed to surpass mediocrity. Hussain and Alec Stewart were superb, while the rest of the top order all made starts only to be snuffed out by solid bowling on a suspect track. Flintoff had a game that even his worst enemy might not have wished him, but remains as vital a piece in the England jigsaw as any.

England must now hope that Marcus Trescothick regains full fitness. Robert Key - despite his juggling acts in the field - has not embarrassed himself, but Trescothick's unflustered, uncomplicated excellence has been much missed, and England will welcome him back with a sigh of relief.

Injuries have dogged them all summer, and there is no suggestion that the problems are over. No less than 17 players have been used in a successful summer, with Darren Gough not playing a Test.

This is not the time for mass changes, for good sides sometimes fail. Presuming Trescothick comes back, other additions to the squad might include pacemen Simon Jones or Steve Harmison. Hussain suggested that Flintoff will not play at The AMP Oval, leaving Surrey's young all-rounder Rikki Clarke in pole position to make his debut. Clarke has returned from injury, and looks an ideal replacement.

A defeat, however comprehensive, does not rule England out of the Ashes. Where England are a good team, Australia are a great one, and are huge favourites. This is not to say England won't compete. They will, and they will threaten. The progress of Flintoff, Trescothick, Vaughan and Matthew Hoggard has been remarkable.

But England do not yet have the luxury to dream of Australia. They must first focus on South London, and turn in a performance which ensures they do not lose a series which they looked like dominating. One beating doesn't spoil a summer, but two might.

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