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Tougher challenges await for England and there are a couple of areas to sort out, but the series victory against West Indies highlighted their solidity as a Test side
George Dobell at Edgbaston
June 11, 2012
Features : Onions savours 'special' comeback
Report : West Indies fight as England quicks share honours
Features : Chance for England to showcase their depth
Players/Officials: James Anderson | Jonny Bairstow | Ian Bell | Tim Bresnan | Graham Onions | Andrew Strauss
Matches: England v West Indies at Birmingham
Series/Tournaments: West Indies tour of England
Sometimes on a long journey it is worth pausing to reflect on what progress has been made. There was a time, not so long ago, when a 2-0 series victory by England over West Indies would have been celebrated as little short of a spectacular.
But, in the last couple of years, England have climbed to the top of the Test and Twenty20 rankings. It speaks volumes for their improvement - and West Indies' decline - that this series result surprised nobody. It was not always like this and it will not always be like this in the future. Indeed, in years to come and despite the bumps in the road experienced in the UAE, we may reflect on this as the golden age of English cricket.
Whether that age is to be sustained remains to be seen. Certainly the next 18-months contains tougher tests and how England come through them will define the legacy of the team. Quite apart from the Ashes and the South African challenge, they have serious questions to answer about their adaptability to Asian conditions.
However, they can look back on this series against West Indies and congratulate themselves on an efficient job. England were pushed hard at times, but there were very few real periods of tension. England, persistent, disciplined and relentless, may not be the team with the most flair in Test cricket. But they make fewer mistakes than most. With their long batting line-up and an excellent first choice bowling attack, they remain tough to beat in England, at least.
It is worth reflecting, too, on some of the questions that hung over the side heading into the series. Most pertinently, there were doubts - quite reasonable doubts - over Andrew Strauss' future as a Test batsman. To a lesser extent, there were concerns over Ian Bell, too, doubts over who should fill the No. 6 position and who should be the third seamer.
We have enjoyed fewer than 11 full days of Test cricket in this series, yet all but one of those questions has been answered with reassuring confidence. Strauss, with two centuries in the first two Tests, proved his worth and won the Man-of-the-Series award for England. Bell averaged over 100 and produced three half-centuries, including some sublime strokes at Edgbaston and some calm batting under pressure at Lord's. Tim Bresnan won the Man-of-the-Match award at Trent Bridge with an all-round performance that underlined his worth to the team.
Only Jonny Bairstow failed to take the opportunity. While he has not looked out of place in the international environment, he failed to score the runs that might have guaranteed his selection for the series against South Africa. It would be premature to reach conclusions about a 22-year-old with only three completed innings behind him, but the fact is that four of England's top seven made centuries on Test debut and, after three Tests, Bairstow averages 12.66. International sport is brutal and impatient.
Andy Flower offered encouraging words for Bairstow, however. "We should be careful not to judge him too harshly," Flower said. "He's a really good young man. A strong, hungry young cricketer and he has a very high ceiling. None of us know if he'll be a successful international cricketer or not but he's played a couple of limited-overs games already where he's helped win games for England. He's a quick learner. There's a history of good young cricketers coming in getting a taste of international cricket and coming back stronger, even if they've not had a hugely successful start."
|England, persistent, disciplined and relentless, may not be the team with the most flair in Test cricket. But they make fewer mistakes than most|
There were a couple of other areas of concern for England. The first session of the fourth day at Edgbaston represented, arguably, England's worst session in the field for several years. While it would be unwise to read too much into one session when a tailender played the innings of his life on a pristine batting surface, it does seem fair to conclude that James Anderson and Stuart Broad's positions as first choice bowlers remain unquestioned. Graham Onions, in particular, bowled impressively, but he will, for now, remain reliant on rotation and injury for his opportunities.
"One of the things about missing a couple of your senior players is it makes you realise what role they do play in the side," Strauss said afterwards. "It also allows you to see what role the other guys could play in the side. I think the picture is a lot clearer now.
"We came to this Test with every intention of Broad playing. It was a last-minute thing that he didn't play. Although we didn't play brilliantly, I am very comfortable and happy that we made that decision, because it will serve us well come the South Africa series. Onions and Steven Finn both showed that they are definitely Test quality bowlers."
Perhaps England also missed Paul Collingwood. Maybe that sounds strange - Collingwood has not played Test cricket since the Ashes in early 2011 - and it was not so much for his determined batting or occasional bowling that was missed. But his excellent catching at third slip has not been replaced and, with Ian Bell dropping two chances in the position at Edgbaston, it is an area England must improve before South Africa arrive.
Had England taken their catches on the third day, they may well have wrapped up the West Indies' first innings before stumps that evening. If they drop Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis or AB de Villiers, it could well cost them a Test. Anderson, excellent in all fielding positions, cannot be there all the time as he will often be bowling.
"The catching was disappointing," Strauss admitted. "That's something we need to get better at. The third slip area is one where we need to develop someone to do an all-round job, rather than chopping and changing. We've got a number of guys with great hands in our side. Bell fields at slip for Warwickshire and Alastair Cook has got good hands, but it's about someone getting used to that position and you've got to give them time to do that. That's something we have to work on.
"But I think by and large we are very happy to have won the series. The West Indies have got some dangerous players, but we were able to overcome that challenge and we obviously go into our next Test assignment in good fettle and feeling confident. We are also aware that there are definitely areas in which we need to improve.
"We played enough good cricket in those first two Tests to win reasonably comfortably. This Test was frustrating for all sorts of reasons. Clearly the rain wiping out the first two days doesn't help with the intensity of the cricket and we certainly didn't get everything right when we were out there in the field. There are definitely areas we need to sharpen up on. Obviously we dropped a few catches and you don't want to be in a situation where their No. 11 gets 95 all that often. We're probably aware that we need to improve our standards a bit before that South Africa series starts."
With Strauss not involved in England's limited-overs teams or Middlesex's Friends Life t20 side, he will spend some time in the nets over the coming weeks. As Middlesex only have one first-class game - against Nottinghamshire at Uxbridge from July 11 - there remains the possibility that he will once again be 'loaned' to Somerset for a two-day game against the South Africans at Taunton on July 9 and 10.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
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Plays of the Day from the first ODI between South Africa and India in Johannesburg
Plays of the Day from the first ODI between South Africa and India in Johannesburg