An inappropriate ending
Suddenly, it's as if the last 12 weeks never happened. England's tour of South Africa contained one of the most compelling Test series of modern times, but how quickly these things are forgotten when the next big attraction rolls into town. Over in Calcutta, there's the sight of Inzamam-ul-Haq dressed as a Muslim warrior to promote Pakistan's tour of India; down in Sydney, there's the sound of Glenn McGrath sharpening his knives ahead of the Ashes series in July.
Thanks to a puzzling piece of late-summer scheduling from the ECB, the Ashes is still the small matter of five months away, although McGrath - in an interview with Radio 2KY - has already singled out Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss as his intended targets this year. One hesitates to suggest this will be his last stab at the English, for he has been having a last stab for three series now, but McGrath seems eager that England's recent triumphs should be quickly forgotten.
He needn't have been so quick to mark his card, for his wish has been granted already. Not for the first time, and most certainly not for the last, a fascinating Test series has been book-ended by two interminable one-day campaigns (and how often are those words heard in the same sentence these days?). If the Zimbabwe fiasco was a uniquely English muddle, then the South Africa series could and should have been a celebration of the few things that remain right about one-day cricket. The sides were evenly matched, the games were closely fought, and in Kevin Pietersen's exploits, there were a range of sub-plots that will echo for years to come. But the timing, quite simply, sucked.
"Let us not wish our sporting lives away," wrote Simon Barnes in The Times, the morning after England's Test series win was completed. Alas, by the time his words were being read, England's hungover heroes were on a bus to the back-of-beyond in Kimberley, preparing for a one-day warm-up against South Africa A. In Johannesburg that morning, a senior England cricketer, on learning that the journalist with whom he was breakfasting was flying back to England that afternoon, responded: "You lucky c**t." As Steve Harmison later confirmed, his sentiments were hardly unique.
Admittedly, Harmison's tour-long travails were a special case, and it was ironic that his best bowling of the winter came in his final burst at Centurion, where he bowled as if Herschelle Gibbs had pinched his boarding card. But even for the stars of the Test series, it was a fortnight too far. Matthew Hoggard confirmed why he has been labelled a Test specialist, Marcus Trescothick rekindled those suspicions that his performances dip too readily at the end of a series, and the extra mileage certainly did Strauss no favours, for it telegraphed the fact that he does, after all, have a human streak to his game. And what do you know, that old shark McGrath has immediately scented blood.
During his phenomenal run in the Test series, Strauss could do no wrong, and attributed his success to the importance of every innings that he played. As he explained to Wisden Asia Cricket, once he had made a start, he had a duty not to throw it away - something he was inclined to do, subconsciously at least, at county level. A tally of 104 runs in seven one-day games, however, suggests that he got pretty sleepy when the pyjamas came out.
Where Strauss once strode, instead it was Pietersen who took centre stage, with a colossal personal tally of 454 runs in six innings. And yet, one can't thinking that he will fall victim of the Rusedski factor. When, as a 21-year-old, he was enticed over to England by the promise of fame and fortune in a land bereft of champions, he wouldn't have bargained for the sudden and dramatic emergence of a home-grown hero in Andrew Flintoff.
The prospect of the two of them uniting in the middle-order this summer is thrilling indeed, but whereas Flintoff will elicit tubthumping cheers when it goes right and anguished sobs when it doesn't, Pietersen could quickly revert to being an outsider if he doesn't come up with the goods on a regular basis. It's harsh, but English crowds can be fickle with the fates of their imported heroes.
With Pietersen in the side, England will always have a chance; but without Flintoff, they haven't got a hope, as one win in nine Flintoff-less matches (excluding the Zimbabwe mismatches) testifies. Pietersen, of course, has three unsuccessful centuries to his name already, which has shades of Trescothick's Jonah-like start to international cricket. And like Trescothick, his success seems to come in spite of his technique, which has a front-foot dominance that McGrath will already be studying with interest.
Duncan Fletcher claims that he learned more from this one-day series than any of its predecessors, although whether that is strictly good news is a moot point, for England's dearth of bowling back-up is a serious concern. Kabir Ali had one massive stroke of good fortune when Mark Boucher swatted a full toss down the throat of midwicket to reawaken England's hopes at Bloemfontein, and the death-bowling experience he gained from that match cannot be underestimated. And yet, he hardly looked fit to polish Darren Gough's boots, and nor did Paul Collingwood, who bowled with tenacity in the holding overs but is never going to be a reliable source of ten-over spells, which is what he is currently being asked to provide.
There are still two years to go until the next World Cup, which equates to 50 or so more matches, and no doubt a wide assortment of bowling options. But these opportunities will be wasted unless the schedulers accept that there is a time and a place for the one-day jamboree. The immediate aftermath of what is sure to be an exhausting and potentially historic Test series is clearly not the moment.
Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo.