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Daniel Brigham at Edgbaston
May 28, 2006
Since England won the Ashes with a settled side (only 12 players were used) that clearly felt at ease and entirely comfortable with one another, the eight following Tests have seen England field 19 men. Not only that, but a temporary captain has emerged while Michael Vaughan struggles with the increasingly worrying knee injury. No one knows just how temporary Freddie's reign is. It's almost as if England are in limbo, waiting for a return to the camaraderie that infused their dominance of the last two years.
Although injuries have allowed us a glimpse of some real talent and a wonderful future, the short-term doesn't look so bright when you look forward to the Ashes. Alastair Cook, Monty Panesar, Owais Shah, Sajid Mahmood and, especially here, Liam Plunkett have shown that there is a nucleus of a side that should have been pushing the members of England's Ashes-winning side over the next three years. But not this early. If England have to play more than three of the newcomers throughout the series this winter, it's hard to see England retaining the Ashes. England are in need of their absent friends.
At Edgbaston, and in the first Test at Lord's, there were worrying signs that tend to accompany unsettled sides. Sessions when everything seemed flat, dropped catches, a tendency to let things drift and a lack of a killer instinct. Only three players gave the impression of everything clicking: Matthew Hoggard (as always - just when did he become such a dangerous bowler?), Kevin Pietersen (hundreds in each of his last three innings on English soil - all of them magnificent) and Liam Plunkett.
Without Pietersen's logic-defying innings, Plunkett would have been a deserved man of the match. Because we are becoming used to Pietersen's thunderous performances, it was Plunkett who was England's biggest plus of this Test. He was fluid in both innings, bowling a good full length and rarely straying from it. He already has the consistency, all he needs now is more wicket-taking deliveries and an extra yard of pace.
It was Plunkett, rather than the usual suspects of Andrew Flintoff or Matthew Hoggard, who provided the impetus in both Sri Lankan innings. Twice he took two wickets in one over; his breakthroughs today, removing Chaminda Vaas and Nuwan Kulasekara in successive deliveries, decisively swung the match in England's favour when Sri Lanka will have been hoping to set a target approaching 150.
England should never have let Sri Lanka get to that position. England's batting failed to show the patience that the slow pitch asked for. But, with KP making the crowd duck and gasp, everything was rosy. At 290 for 5, the chances of England batting again looked slim. It also covered over that the top three made starts without going on to make anything over 30. But the fall of Pietersen sucked the life out of the innings. Neither Flintoff or Geraint Jones really looked like capitalising on his excellent work, and five runs later, England were out and the opportunity to kill the game had gone.
England bowled well that evening, with plenty of purpose. Hoggard and Panesar shared two wickets; they could have had more. When play eventually got under way on the Saturday, the buzz of the previous evening had gone. Panesar and Hoggard bowled well enough but never really looked like taking a wicket. Neither did Freddie. With Plunkett unable to bowl because of a shoulder injury, throwing the ball to Mahmood or Paul Collingwood just wasn't the same as giving it to Steve Harmison or Simon Jones. Again, absent friends were keenly felt.
Perhaps the biggest absence is Vaughan. Flintoff, criticised at Lord's, captained well here, and England have won two of their last three Tests very comfortably. He rotated his bowlers, was constantly enthusiastic and set get good, imaginative fields. But his bowling and batting felt inhibited. He seems to have lost a bit of pace from last summer, and is struggling to get into his deadly rhythm. There was nothing from him that approached his memorable over against Ricky Ponting at this venue last year. This time, he rarely bowled more than three overs in a spell.
His batting was also introverted, although he did have the excuse of playing the straight man to KP. Captaincy doesn't seem to have affected Freddie's batting results - prior to this Test his scores had been 43, 70, 51, 50, 50, 33 not out. But, and it's probably best to whisper this, his captaincy does seem to have turned him into a less charismatic, brutal batsman.
If this shows he is taking his role as captain seriously, then fine. But it's hard to imagine him showing so much restraint if he had been batting under Vaughan; a blazing Freddie innings would have taken this game out of reach of Sri Lanka. In a week when an English sportsman's foot injury made front page headlines, let us also pray with as much vigour for a speedy recovery for another English sporstman's knee injury. Here's to absent friends, and their swift return.
Daniel Brigham is staff writer of The Wisden Cricketer
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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