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May 16, 2012
With the sun shining on Lord's and Andrew Strauss receiving the ICC Test Championship mace in the rose garden, it would be easy to reach the conclusion that all is well for England cricket.
It is true, too, that the last few years have brought unprecedented success. England have won their first global competition - the World Twenty20 - they have won the Ashes home and away and they have climbed to No. 1 in the official Test and T201 rankings. It is a record of which they are justifiably proud.
Any delusions of grandeur they may have had, however, were dispelled over the winter. Defeat against Pakistan in the UAE - a crushing 3-0 defeat at that - provided a harsh reminder of how far they have to go before they can build the "legacy" of which they have spoken.
Now England find themselves at a crossroads. Win against West Indies and South Africa this summer and they will re-establish their reputation. They will still have questions to answer about their ability to counter good quality spin bowling in Asian conditions but they will at least arrive in India later this year with confidence restored. Lose either series this summer and they will be overtaken in the rankings and their period of supremacy will be regarded in much the same way as a one hit wonder looks back at their music career. Even a draw against West Indies, with the first Test starting at Lord's on Thursday, would see South Africa take top position.
Another series loss may also bring more casualties. Eoin Morgan was the one man to lose his place as a result of the winter's travails, but it was telling that, at the captains' pre-match media conference, it did not take long for questions to turn to Andrew Strauss' own form. England's captain, averaging just 26 over the last year, knows that he is under the spotlight and gave the strongest hint yet that he will reflect on his position as captain at the end of this three-match series.
"It's dangerous to look too far ahead," he said. "Things can change so quickly and if you're too wedded to some ideal moment to go you can be very surprised by it. So the way I'm looking at it really is one series at a time and if I feel like I'm still contributing and helping the side be a better side both as a captain and batsman then I don't see any reason to change things. But we just don't know what's round the corner; we never do."
Perhaps little should be read into such words. Strauss tends to speak in measured tones and use caveats to cover most eventualities. He did accept that the runs had not flowed as he would have liked, but insisted his confidence and his determination remained as high as ever. While he suggested conditions in the county game had not been conducive to batsmen finding their touch, he also knows that the likes of Nick Compton, Joe Root and Varun Chopra are rendering the argument that England do not have suitable top-order replacements redundant.
"I recognise as captain and as an opening batsman that I need to contribute," Strauss said. "I fully intend to do that. I've got no reason in my mind why I shouldn't go on and do that this summer. Hopefully I'll be able to lead from the front with the bat as well.
"It's always a challenge as an opener to score runs. I feel in reasonable form last six months, but 20s and 30s aren't what we're looking for.
"It didn't feel like a witch hunt [being questioned over his form], it just felt like the issue of the day. I think we all know that the only way to switch attention elsewhere is to go out and perform and that's what I intend to do.
"Conditions in county cricket this season have challenged you to look at your technique and, if there are any weaknesses in it, they are going to be exposed. We have been unlucky with the weather but, if you combine the weather and the lack of the heavy roller, then suddenly there have definitely been times when things have been too much in favour of the bowlers. It hasn't been impossible to score runs, but it's all about balance between bat and ball.
"I feel good. The times I've lasted more than 10 balls or so I've felt very good. But it's been the nature of the beast that, early season with the weather we've had, that it's been pretty tough for batting. But I feel well-prepared, I've had a lot of time working on my game in and amongst the games we've played and I'm quite excited to go out there and hopefully have a good season."
England have other issues to resolve before that. They have to pick three from their five seamers - realistically one of Steven Finn, Graham Onions and Tim Bresnan - to play here, while Jonny Bairstow is also set to make his Test debut.
"He's a really exciting talent," Strauss said of Bairstow. "He's shown glimpses of it in the shorter forms of the game and his first-class record is excellent. He can play the game at a number of different paces, as well. For a guy batting at No. 6 that is a great attribute to have. He is young and enthusiastic and it's been great having him around because it just reminds us all how special it is to be representing your country: you can see the excitement on his face. It has been lovely to have him involved. It has come a little bit from leftfield for him but I'm sure if he gets the chance he will make a really good fist of it.
"All five seamers have very strong reasons to be playing in this Test match, but the likelihood is we are going to pick three of them. A lot of it boils down to your gut feeling about who you is going to offer the most in these conditions, but I would be very confident walking out with any of the five that we have here this week.
"The winter was a challenge and we've learned some really valuable things but now it's about reconnecting with what we've done well in these conditions. We're a very confident side and we've got all bases covered in these conditions, but the challenges is to perform. There are always points to prove. We have shifted our attention away from the number one ranking because it's unhealthy to look over your shoulder. It's about us concentrating on improving our own performances. If we can do that then the number one ranking will look after itself."
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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