England look long-term May 11, 2006

The bigger picture

English cricket, a generation on, is unrecognisable from the short-termist, revolving door mentality that bedevilled teams through the '80s and '90s, says John Stern
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Immense demands on an immense individual © Getty Images

When Sri Lanka played their first Test in England 22 years ago they were considered little more than light relief at the end of a summer of unremitting brutality at the hands of West Indies.

This complacency manifested itself in David Gower putting the Sri Lankans in on a belter and Sri Lanka declaring nine runs shy of 500. As the game drifted towards a draw - and embarrassment for England - Ian Botham resorted to bowling off-breaks. England were all over the place. Some were punch-drunk from the 5-0 pasting they had just suffered. Others, like Chris Tavare, were so nervous about keeping their place and win a tour spot to India that they visibly wilted out in the middle.

English cricket, a generation on, is unrecognisable from the short-termist, revolving door mentality that bedevilled teams through the '80s and '90s. But there are similarities with 1984. There is still an air of "Oh, we'll beat this lot", though from supporters and press rather than the team, who wouldn't be allowed to think like that even if they wanted to. Duncan Fletcher would see to that.

And there are tour spots to be played for. It's just that players are competing for them at the start of the summer rather than the end. There really is no escaping the Ashes. The selection of Jon Lewis, the Gloucestershire swinger who took nine Sri Lankan wickets for England A, is the one concession to horses for courses. And I'd be very surprised if he made the final XI in any case.

The selections of Alastair Cook and Monty Panesar are the ones that scream Ashes planning. They are also selections that scream long-termism. What if Michael Vaughan and Ashley Giles never play again? Here are their replacements. Despite Cook's instant success in India, few pundits had him in their side to start the summer. The sidelining of Ian Bell is ruthless but also indicative that Cook is considered to be a player for the Ashes. Nasser Hussain believes it is because he plays the bouncing ball well or, more to the point, better than Bell.

Panesar is a bold, decisive pick. The safety-first option would have been Shaun Udal or Ian Blackwell even though Panesar is clearly a better spinner now than both of them

Panesar is a bold, decisive pick. The safety-first option would have been Shaun Udal or Ian Blackwell even though Panesar is clearly a better spinner now than both of them and has a decade or more to develop.

It is not just about the Ashes, it is about the ongoing search for the best XI to perform in all conditions. Injuries have dictated that it isn't the side that finished the fourth Test against Australia at Trent Bridge last year. The other week Hussain and his Sky TV colleague David Lloyd were asked to pick their England line-ups for the first Ashes Test at Brisbane in November. The two selections differed only in one pick. Hussain had Cook while Lloyd had Paul Collingwood. Neither had Bell but his omission was the only change from the Ashes-winning side of 2005. What chance of that happening? Zero, I would suggest.

The pre-Nagpur gloom, as England cricketers were going down quicker than Chelsea strikers, has lifted because there appear to be ready replacements. And Vaughan's captaincy has yet to be truly missed. But no one can bring themselves to contemplate an injury to you know who. Andrew Flintoff seems to have taken everything so comfortably in his enormous stride: the hype, the attention, the captaincy. But there must be a breaking-point, mustn't there?

Hopefully, any impending stress-related injury can be spotted early by the medical team. But there is no obvious time for rest, particularly with Vaughan still out of the team. Maybe it will come during the Champions Trophy or possibly he'll miss some of the home one-dayers against Sri Lanka or Pakistan though England can ill afford to pick under-strength one-day sides as they approach the World Cup.

Just as long as he doesn't start bowling off-breaks.

John Stern is editor of The Wisden Cricketer