England v South Africa, 3rd Investec Test, Lord's, 3rd day August 18, 2012

Jury still out on England

The Lord's Test against South Africa may come to be seen as marking the end of a golden era for England - but the future remains bright

Like a defendant awaiting the judgement of a jury, England nervously enter the final two days of this series with their fate in the balance

Whatever happens over the last pages of this increasingly absorbing Test series, it neither negates the progress England cricket has made in recent years or masks the deficiencies that have been highlighted in recent months. While some will seize on defeat to denounce England as the one-hit wonders of the cricket world - a team that were flattered by home conditions and weak opposition - others will seize on victory to suggest that recent reverses - such as the whitewash against Pakistan in the UAE and the thumping defeat at The Oval - were simply aberrations.

Neither conclusion would do. England are a decent side who, over the last few years, have played some impressive cricket. And there is clearly not such a margin between these teams as the result at The Oval suggested. But the evidence now proves England are far from the finished article. Indeed, the suspicion remains that, in neutral territory and over a longer series, South Africa would probably hold the edge.

It would be no disgrace should England lose to a side as good as South Africa. Their pace attack currently has no rivals in the international game, while the depth and quality of their batting line-up is daunting. Perhaps their search for a top-quality spinner goes on, but Jacques Kallis' enduring excellence as an allrounder mitigates for that and, despite their diverse backgrounds and beliefs, they have been moulded into a side with a unity of purpose. They would be, in any era and by any measurement, a very good side.

The nagging suspicion remains, however, that England have not quite done themselves justice in this series. While that, in large part, is due to the pressure applied by South Africa with the ball and with the bat, England must also accept that they have made too many self-inflicted errors. The dropped catches, particularly Alastair Cook's drop of Alviro Petersen in Leeds and Matt Prior's of Hashim Amla on the third day here, are the most obvious examples, but the England batsmen must also accept that they have surrendered their wickets too cheaply. To be dismissed by excellent bowling must be accepted, but to guide wide balls to the slips as regularly as England have done in these three Tests is infuriatingly self defeating.

Equally, if England win this game and therefore retain the No. 1 Test ranking, their failings in recent months should not be overlooked. England's problems against spin, their bowlers' lack of pace and incision and the issues with Kevin Pietersen will remain even if England are victorious. Indeed, the temptation to ignore such problems must be resisted in any circumstance. A resource as precious as Pietersen must be utilised if they are to bounce back. To scrap him aged 32, whatever his faults, would show a chronic failure of management skills.

It is true that England's period at the top of the rankings may well prove to have been brief, certainly too brief for any talk of legacy. Nor is it possible to be wildly optimistic about their immediate future bearing in mind that their next Test series is to be played in India. Things may get worse before they get better.

But it is worth reflecting for a moment on where England were not so long ago. It is worth recalling the 1999 season when England were eliminated from the World Cup they hosted even before the tournament's theme song was released. It is worth recalling the boos from England supporters that greeted the team when they collected their medals after the Test series defeat against New Zealand which saw them drift to the foot of the Test rankings. It is worth recalling the muddled selection policies that saw 29 players selected for the Ashes series of 1989, it is worth recalling the wounded men who were thrashed 5-0 in the Ashes whitewash of 2006-07, the lack of intensity that persisted in the county game before the introduction of two divisions, four-day cricket and effective academies. It is, most of all, worth recalling the days when success in English cricket was a brief interlude in a general drama of failure. The truth is, English cricket was shambolic for years.

Win, lose or draw this Test, the period between the middle of 2009 and late 2011 might still be considered a golden age for English cricket. Not just for the Test ranking, but for the World T20 success and their much-delayed improvements in ODI cricket. And, whatever the trouble ahead, English cricket can take comfort in that fact that structures now exist to identify, develop and retain talent. That the county game is producing cricketers such as Jonny Bairstow, Steven Finn, James Taylor, Chris Woakes and Ben Stokes who have the talent and temperament to rebuild. That this Lord's Test may come to mark the end of an era but, whatever the hype and hyperbole of the coming days, there is some reason to suggest a new one may be around the corner.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • John on August 20, 2012, 7:53 GMT

    @Meety on (August 20 2012, 01:09 AM GMT) Agree with your post by and large - as I often do. I'm just not sure Flower/Strauss do changing tact. I mean Flower has never once changed formation despite all our woeful cricket since being number 1 and even Strauss doesn't change onfield. I mean it's like Flower's 6/1/4 policy is "It's what we do and what got us to number 1" and Strauss opening the bowling with Broad rather than the express , more unsettling pace of Finn for the same reason. Where do England have to be for them to change tact and realise they're on a downward spiral?

  • John on August 20, 2012, 7:47 GMT

    @MrMankad on (August 19 2012, 11:31 AM GMT) It depends who is rating them as to whether they are overrated or not. If you are reading some of the Mark Nicholas threads then yes I agree. If you are reading alot of the comments from many of your fellow countrymen then I'd say we were underrated. Re the Pakistan series - no I have not conveniently ignored it. If you read my post I include "just like they deserve the criticisms for their form since becoming 1" being that the Pakistan series falls into that timescale as does the SL (Drawn) WI (won) - both of which I still think we underperformed in , I've not ignored it at all. Please publish

  • Andrew on August 20, 2012, 1:12 GMT

    @crindo77 - I like sledging the Poms from time to time, but "...then had 3 years of success after say, 100 years..." is not quite an accurate picture. The Poms were very good in the 50/60s & were technically the #1 side in 1980, & had a very good side through the 70s.

  • Andrew on August 20, 2012, 1:09 GMT

    @JG2704 - there is certainly some muddled thinking going on with the Brains Trust at Team England. The discipline & focus of the Ashes seems gone & there is no real direction. In the 10/11 Ashes, England replaced Finn (strategic) & Broad (injury) with Tremlett & Bresnan & they slotted in so well, it was like there was planned obsolescense built into the squad. Now, they seem a bit rudderless, whilst Bairstow at this point in time seems a good choice, & Taylor has undoubted skill, throwing them all in against the Saffas due to the KP saga, seems odd (from afar). The Swann in/out/in thing was poor, why did he play in the ODIs at all if he was affected by his elbow? If he wasn't affected by his elbow - why was he dropped at all? When you are behind come the last Test in a series, you must throw the Kitchen sink, & 6/1/4 is not an example of this. Despite all this, its a nucleus of a good side, that should challenge (& win matches) against the top sides.

  • Andrew on August 20, 2012, 0:52 GMT

    @andrew-schulz - LOL! Should I grieve that the rankings say we're #9 in T20s???? Well said!

  • John on August 19, 2012, 20:23 GMT

    @StJohn on (August 19 2012, 13:51 PM GMT) Great post there and feel I agree with most of what you say. I wonder if Vaughan captaining today's side or that 2005 Ashes side playing in today's era might do better. Re your last sentence - may I also add "And Tamely"?

  • John on August 19, 2012, 20:22 GMT

    @Meety on (August 19 2012, 12:50 PM GMT) You could be right there. Aus also have the knowledge that they got the better of SA overall during the last tour. I also wonder if a difference in the last Ashes might have been reduced had Clarke been captain. I also wonder how Eng may have done having Clarke as their captain. Eng's mentality seems to be "It's what we do , it's how we got to number 1 etc" and I still feel it would still be the same if we slip out of the top 4.Phrases like "Attack Is The Best Form Of Defence" and "Different Horses For Different Courses" seem totally alien to Flower/Strauss.

  • John on August 19, 2012, 20:22 GMT

    @R_U_4_REAL_NICK on (August 19 2012, 11:49 AM GMT) I don't think I am being harsh. Everyone comes to the end of the line at some point. I think him and Flower are stuck in a rut and Strauss's form and more worrying his judgement and reflexes look shot. His form has been patchy for a while , only with the tons vs WI giving him a little respite. Dravid's reflexes, judgment etc went in the Australian series after looking amazing in the Eng tour

  • Simon on August 19, 2012, 17:28 GMT

    I'm sorry 158notout, I cannot agree that England has been the best team in the last three years, merely ranked number one. I also cannot agree with George Dobell when he claims that this is not due to home advantage and weak opposition. And don't get me wrong, I'm not claiming that SA are the best team in the world but we are more than "marginally better" than England!

  • SAJ on August 19, 2012, 16:10 GMT

    welcome to reality England. A good side but never great. Gone are the silly comparisons with the great Windies team of the 70s and 80s and the Aussies of the late 90s to the late 00s. Similalry the clowns both amongst supporters and even the pundits clamining Anderson was joustling with Steyn for the best bowler tag have gone very silent now

  • No featured comments at the moment.