England set sights on South Africa
The dust has barely settled on England's historic summer of Test victories, but already the coach, Duncan Fletcher, has turned his thoughts to a tough winter campaign in South Africa. England name their squad for that trip on Wednesday, and with seven consecutive victories under their belts - and 10 wins in their last 11 matches - confidence is sure to be high, going into the first Test at Port Elizabeth on December 17.
England haven't won a series in South Africa for 40 years, not since MJK Smith's team won 1-0 in 1964-65. But Fletcher is confident that all that could change in the coming months, especially if the side continues to improve at their current rate. "We're expecting to win when we go to South Africa," he said. "We have good batters and a good bowling attack that should bowl well on those wickets."
The trip to South Africa will represent the completion of a five-year cycle for Fletcher, whose first match in charge of England began in famously inauspicious circumstances at Johannesburg in November 1999. After being put in on a damp seamer, England were obliterated by Shaun Pollock and Allan Donald, slumping to 2 for 4 before the debutant, Michael Vaughan, helped piece together the innings with a composed 33.
"I can honestly say I'm a lot more confident about the side," added Fletcher. "It's a lot more balanced than the last time we went out there in 1999. Now I feel we have a side that is a total package and is looking pretty solid." Vaughan's sentiments were equally bullish: "If we keep playing good cricket and keep doing what we've been doing, there's no reason why we can't continue the run. We realise South Africa are a very good team, especially on their home soil, but if we continue to play like we are doing we can certainly put them under pressure."
Success, however, opens up a whole new range of selection dilemmas, and there will be one or two anxious players awaiting the squad announcement on Wednesday. The biggest area of scrutiny will be the batting, where the instant impact of a whole range of new players has created an enviable competition for places. Graham Thorpe, who missed the Oval Test through injury, is a shoo-in for the trip, which means that Ian Bell, impressive though he was on debut, is unlikely to make the grade just yet. Until his thigh injury, Mark Butcher had played in 42 consecutive matches, and it would be out of character for Fletcher to pass up on that sort of experience, while Robert Key's unbeaten 93 at Old Trafford effectively secured his boarding pass with a match to spare.
The seam bowlers pick themselves - the four who played at The Oval, plus Simon Jones - although given the brutal nature of the itinerary, with three back-to-back matches in 21 days, England may be wary of the wear-and-tear that awaits their leading performers. Last winter, faced with a similar fixture pile-up, England got through four new-ball partnerships in five Tests, and it was left to that energetic toiler, James Kirtley, to carry the attack towards the end of the Sri Lanka series. With that in mind, Kabir Ali, a similarly big-hearted performer, may be preferred to the experience of Martin Saggers or the youthful promise of Sajid Mahmood.
The wicketkeeping is another area that is sure to court controversy. Geraint Jones has more than justified his inclusion in the side ahead of Chris Read, but his spectacular alliance with Andrew Flintoff means that Read can no longer be guaranteed a back-up role in the squad. In the event of an injury to Jones, England need a like-for-like replacement, and both James Foster - an improved batsman since his last appearances for England - and Sussex's Matt Prior are both better bets to score those important tailend runs.
Having presided over England's rise up the Test rankings, however, Fletcher will have no complaints about the tricky calls that await him. Ahead of the fourth Test at The Oval, he warned his charges that their performance at Old Trafford had not been up to scratch, and the response was the most emphatic victory of the summer. "It was mainly to make sure they weren't getting complacent," he explained. "I did say to them that I had to be hyper-critical, because if I wasn't then we weren't going to go forward."
The side, in Fletcher's opinion, is very close to fulfilment, although the over-reliance on Andrew Flintoff is an ongoing concern. "We need a bowling allrounder to help us bat a bit more in depth," he admitted, "but outside of that I think the balance is pretty good." In the long run, a man like Surrey's Alex Tudor - with a 99 not out to his name in Tests - would be an ideal addition to the squad, although his continued fitness concerns make him a liability at this stage of his comeback.
In the meantime, it must be hoped that England's unstoppable Test momentum is not dented by the one-day itinerary that will pass the time until December. The three-match NatWest Challenge against India begins next week, before the focus shifts to next month's Champions Trophy and the subsequent one-day series in Zimbabwe.
Possible England squad Marcus Trescothick, Andrew Strauss, Robert Key, Mark Butcher, Michael Vaughan (capt), Graham Thorpe, Andrew Flintoff, Geraint Jones (wk), James Foster (wk), Ashley Giles, Gareth Batty, Steve Harmison, Matthew Hoggard, Simon Jones, James Anderson, Kabir Ali.