England v West Indies, 4th Test, The Oval August 17, 2004

History beckons for England



Ian Bell: in line for his Test debut © Getty Images

It used only to be Australians who suffered from dead-rubber syndrome - that most infuriating of conditions whereby a dominant side could write off a failure to complete a clean sweep by claiming that the match never mattered anyway. Now, however, it is England's turn to put complacency on the backburner, as they assemble at The Oval to push for a record-equalling seventh consecutive Test victory.

With nine wins and one draw in their last ten matches, England are on a roll, the like of which they have never before experienced. Only twice in their history have they won seven matches in succession - against Australia between 1885 and 1888, in the early days of the Ashes, and against West Indies and Australia in 1928-29, when Percy Chapman was captain and a young Harold Larwood was thrusting his way to prominence.

History is clearly beckoning, but understandably Duncan Fletcher, England's no-nonsense coach, is putting all such thoughts out of his charges' heads. "it is important that the guys now believe in their ability," Fletcher told Sky Sports, "but they mustn't be too arrogant about this. There are better sides, and against those better sides, if we played badly as we did [on occasions at Old Trafford], we are going to come unstuck."

There were "windows" in England's performance, Fletcher felt, that might have been exploited by stronger opposition - most notably their crass use of the new ball on Saturday morning, and their top-order subsidence in the fourth innings. But, he added, that fact that England went on to win so handsomely was a good sign. "We realise that even though we do play poorly, we can still knuckle down and produce a result.

"This is a side that wins, is happy and enjoys playing cricket, but the crucial part is to realise that this game might just come back and bite you," Fletcher warned. "You have to be very careful when you win like this. People might just think things are getting too easy."

England should have little time for complacency, however, and an injection of new blood should underline the importance of the match if, as expected, Ian Bell makes his Test debut in place of the injured Graham Thorpe. "I can't wait," said Bell. "I know a few of the guys quite well, and I'm looking forward to being a part of it."

Bell was first drafted into the England set-up on the tour of New Zealand in 2001-02, but has had to back up his immense promise with a torrent of runs. After a lean couple of seasons, he has burst back to form with 1455 runs in 14 county matches for Warwickshire, including four centuries and a 96 not out in five consecutive innings. He knows full well that a place on the winter tour to South Africa is there for the taking, if he can grasp his chance in the same way that Andrew Strauss and Robert Key have done this season.

England's major concern, as ever, centres around their man of the moment, Andrew Flintoff, whose troublesome ankle is continuing to gnaw away at the selectors' consciences. Flintoff sent down 32 overs in the Old Trafford Test, and dismissed Brian Lara in both innings, but Michael Vaughan is aware that he cannot afford to overburden his talisman, especially with the Champions Trophy around the corner. "Realistically we won't want to bowl him too much," admitted Vaughan, "but he's such a good bowler and he gets you key wickets at key moments. You have to bowl your best bowlers in these situations."

Compared to the cares that dogged his predecessors, Vaughan's dilemma is a minor quibble. Since he assumed the captaincy little more than a year ago, England have won 12 out of 18 Tests. Nasser Hussain (17 wins in 45) and Michael Atherton (13 in 54) must be spitting into their microphones in envy.

England (probable) 1 Marcus Trescothick, 2 Andrew Strauss, 3 Robert Key, 4 Michael Vaughan (capt), 5 Ian Bell, 6 Andrew Flintoff, 7 Geraint Jones (wk), 8 Ashley Giles, 9 Steve Harmison, 10 Matthew Hoggard, 11 James Anderson.