England v WI, 2nd Test, Trent Bridge, 4th day May 28, 2012

South African shadow looms large for England

With a series for the top spot in the world coming up, England proved once again how good they are at home

Like the film Titanic, there were some twists and turns along the way, but the end result on the fourth day at Trent Bridge was inevitable: West Indies - like the ship - were going down.

This was always going to prove something of a no-win series for England. Victory was expected; defeat would have been viewed as an embarrassment. England remain as the No. 1 ranked Test side, but those who insist they are little more than home-track bullies will go on believing it.

England's record at home really is remarkable, though. This success sealed their seventh successive home series win under Andrew Strauss - a record for any England captain - during which period they have won 16 Tests and lost just two. It was also the first time West Indies had suffered defeat in a first-class game at Trent Bridge. Whatever their issues against spin - and spin in Asian conditions in particular - England are excellent in England.

That may prove just as well. The shadow of South Africa looms over this series with England knowing that far tougher tests lie ahead. It would be disrespectful to dismiss West Indies as little more than a warm-up; disrespectful but not entirely untrue. It may well be that England even use the third Test at Edgbaston to rest a key player or two - James Anderson, who has, in Strauss' words a "quad niggle" is the obvious candidate - and take a look at some fringe candidates. Steven Finn may well win another chance.

Some may complain that such a move is disrespectful to West Indies or to the game. But the England schedule over the next 18 months or so - with a World T20, two Ashes series and demanding series against South Africa at home and India away - is daunting and relentless. Anderson would play every game if he could, but such a gem requires careful handling.

"We will definitely think about that," Strauss said. "We've always viewed resting or rotation as something you do on a case by case basis. We'll speak to the seamers and see how they are feeling. There is a balance to strike because primarily we want to win every Test - that's the starting point - but there is some benefit in taking a look at other bowlers. We want to win the series 3-0."

While England favour continuity of selection they will show no sentimentality towards Jonny Bairstow if they feel he does have a genuine problem against the short ball

While the fallibility of the West Indies top four - a top four that have contributed only 203 runs between them in 16 innings in this series - might suggest otherwise, the pitches at Lord's and Trent Bridge offered the England attack little assistance. There was minimal conventional swing available to bowlers in Nottingham and, with little pace, bounce or seam movement either, England were instead obliged to rely on the old virtues of line, length and pressure.

It is a method they have perfected. They rarely destroy teams with outrageous displays of pace or devastating displays of individual skill. Instead the four bowlers, all of them proficient but none, by the strictest standards, great, share wickets between them. In the field, they besiege teams with pressure. They give them nothing, cutting off their scoring opportunities and preying on their weaknesses and insecurities. They choke and suffocate them. With the bat they wear teams down and, by batting so deep, test the fitness, resolve and skill of their opposition. They are the boa constrictors of the cricket world.

Opponents often chastise themselves for one bad session; in truth they have more often buckled after several sessions of pressure. England may not possess the best individual players in the world but, in these conditions anyway, they may well have the best team.

The series against South Africa will clarify that. England will go into it, at least, in decent shape. On the final day here Strauss and Alastair Cook became just the fifth pair of batsmen in Test history to add over 5,000 runs together, Kevin Pietersen is back to his confident best, they have a batting line-up that contributes down to No. 10 and a reliable, sometimes inspired, bowling unit. Some doubt remains about the identify of the man who will bat at No. 6 against South Africa - while England favour continuity of selection they will show no sentimentality towards Jonny Bairstow if they feel he does have a genuine problem against the short ball - but the other 10 places are all but picked.

"We feel we can beat anybody at home," Strauss said. "We have home advantage, we know the conditions better than the opposition and we think we're a match for any side generally. Test wins are not easily achieved - we have been pushed hard in both these Tests - but it is the right attitude to think we can beat anyone at home."

It is worth reflecting for a moment on the contrasting fortunes of these teams over the last decade or so. Since 2000, the first time England won the Wisden Trophy in the lifetime of these players, England have, with a few blips upon the journey, risen from the bottom to the top of the Test rankings. West Indies have continued their slide in the opposite direction and, since February 2009, they have played 32 Tests, won just two (one of which was against Bangladesh) and lost 16. They have lost six of their last eight Tests.

They could do worse than learning from England. And they could start by looking at the work of Lord MacLaurin - chairman of the ECB between 1997 and 2002 - and the way in which he instilled the game in England and Wales with a common purpose.

The greatest achievement of the ECB in those years was to convince all parties - the counties, the players, the media and the supporters - that the No. 1 priority was the success of the national team. Everything else - the central contracts, the investment in the national team, the investment in age group cricket and in local academies and the improvements in the domestic game - all came from that principal. While Caribbean cricket remains choked by ego, petty grievances, personal agendas, appalling management and individual aspirations, the West Indies team is trying to climb with an anvil tied to its back. They deserve so much better.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Roo on May 31, 2012, 13:51 GMT

    The Saafa's may be looming large, but it will be without having played much cricket... This year SA have only played NZ in Feb/Mar & thats it... Eng this year have played Pak, SL, WI & then an ODI's series against Oz before the 1st SA v Eng Test... If Eng don't beat the Saafa's at home, then it will be more a poor indictment of where Eng is at, rather than where SA are at... Not casting stones, just facts...

  • Martin on May 31, 2012, 13:03 GMT

    JG2704, it might well be that the Ashes series is played as often as any other. But the SA complaint is that the Ashes consists of five matches, whereas most of the recent SA series have been three, even two or if lucky four. When last did they play five? I have no clue but hazard a guess at a series against the Windies?

    I wonder how much this has to do with tv revenue? There's more to be made in games that feature sub-continent sides and England and Australia. SA hasn't got the paying public. Just a thought.

  • John on May 31, 2012, 8:07 GMT

    @ Meety - Agree pretty much with everything you say. I'm sure I've said similar loads of times in the past and loads more in the future. The last series vs Aus sums themup for me. They bowl Aus out in the 1st test and end up winning in from trailing significantly from the 1st inns and then the same SA attack could not defend 300+ (after having them 165-5) vs the same side in the next test. Obviously credit must also go to Aus lower order but the results are there for all to see

  • John on May 31, 2012, 8:01 GMT

    @ dogcatcher on (May 30 2012, 10:17 AM GMT) Just to pick you up on one thing re Eng playing Aus too often. They play an Ashes series the same number of times per decade (by and large) as they play any other country. It somehow panned out we've not played NZ for some time and some joker made out like we were avoiding playing them. Re ODIs - I thought it was a shame SA/Aus played any ODIs when I think both sets of fans would rather have seen a decider for the last series. Also I don't think Aus are weak. Comp to the side pre 2008 then yes but they drew in SA , won in SL (which both SA and Eng failed to do on their last visits). And yes - too early to rank our bowlers with the all time greats. I think the only fair way is to only rank retired bowlers/bowling units and even then it becomes subjective

  • Mark on May 31, 2012, 6:43 GMT

    I guess that the problem with many of these comments about SA's superiority is the obvious one: ehy don't they win more series (and by bigger margins when they do win) if they are so good? If it's down to mental weakness, which is what a lot of commentators have suggested, why won't England be able to exploit this weakness as others have? One of the features of England 2003-05 was that, after series people said "ah yes, but England beat a side in decline" (NZ, SA, Aus, WI, ...). It's also been a feature of recent series (Aus, Ind, ...). What a good side does is make the opposition look less good than they really are. The West Indies in the '80s & '90s and Australia afterwards were masters at it. We'll see this summer which side has that power. Undoubtedly the top 3 sides right now are Eng, SA & Pak (who are rising fast and should be officially #3 this summer) - it is not obvious to me though which of the 3 will be top dog in 12 months.

  • Andrew on May 31, 2012, 6:02 GMT

    @Saffie1987 - on paper I'd say the Saffas are the better side & SHOULD win in a close fought series - maybe 2-1, HOWEVER, if the Saffas play @ 75%, England will win 3nil - all by innings margins. The great WIndies or Oz sides of the past couldn't win everything, (meaning they lost when they weren't @ 100%). As good as I think this Saffa side could be, they are NOT that great. @R_U_4_REAL_NICK - agreed, regardless of rankings - the fundamental difference between the Saffas & India is that the Saffas batting & bowling is better suited to England than India's - so no comparison between the teams is valid. @JG2704 - Sth Africa are an enigma in cricket. Back throughout Oz's period of dominance, I never simply expected to beat the Saffas, I always thought they could win. I thought they'd be the next Champs of world cricket after Oz were knocked off. It amazes me how they under perform so much! Steyn is ridiculously good + Philander & then there is Kallis, AB & Amla. Has me stumped!

  • John on May 30, 2012, 21:48 GMT

    @R_U_4_REAL_NICK - Agreed that taking 20 wickets (obviously for less than what your opponents take 20 wkts for) is what is required and SA do have better bowling options than India , which makes it surprising that SA aren't winning all that many series at all. However , 50/50 series predicted from me

  • John on May 30, 2012, 21:43 GMT

    @ Saffie1987 on (May 30 2012, 14:14 PM GMT) You say about maybe going a little OTT but then you say about only needing to play at 75% to beat England? Maybe no one's seen the above 75% SA side because drawing so many series (most of which were at home) - well if you were above 75% in those series then 75% isn't good enough to beat England unless England have an absolute stinker. Man for man SA probably are the better side. Could be that this is the series where it all falls into place

  • Sharon on May 30, 2012, 20:51 GMT

    @R_U_4_REAL_NICK - Ok mate you got me. Definitely there is no comparison between India and South Africa who should not be mentioned together in same sentence. Even so as you rightly point out battle is fought out in bowling department. But I cannot see how South Africa batsmen will be able to withstand England bowling and fielding pressure. India "stellar" batting could not handle it and Aussie (albeit weaker) batting at home in Australia could not handle it. In England no-one can handle it. This is why I pick England but team appear well matched on paper. Cricket not played on paper though, eh? PS I like your posts so no grudge here...!

  • Nicholas on May 30, 2012, 20:19 GMT

    @A_Vacant_Slip: India believed that packing a team full of batsmen was key to victory, and either forgot the golden rule or just didn't have options: IN TEST CRICKET THE NUMBER ONE PRIORITY IS TAKING 20 WICKETS. Therefore I don't think you can simply compare the upcoming SA team with 'Number 1 India of old' - SA has fantastic bowling options, and THIS is what wins test matches. That's what's gonna make this series a tight one, regardless of England's impressive home stats.

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