Another step on the road to Brisbane May 25, 2006

England need another Edgbaston boost

England know that all roads lead to Brisbane but they don't know which route will take them there or exactly who will be driving the car, says John Stern
  shares



It's so key for England that Michael Vaughan is the man to walk out to toss the coin with Ricky Ponting on November 23 in Brisbane © Getty Images

Birmingham is famous, make that infamous, the world over for its mazy road network known as Spaghetti Junction. England know that all roads lead to Brisbane but they don't know which route will take them there or exactly who will be driving the car.

The circumstances are completely different, but for the second time in a year England arrive at Edgbaston in need of some nifty navigation to set them on the right track.

In 2005, they were staring down the barrel of another Ashes slaughter. Then, Glenn McGrath trod on a ball and set England off on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to paradise. In 2006, they are level rather than trailing in a series but they must reclaim their reputation.

In a sense, it shows how times have changed and expectations have risen. But the more pressing point is that England must start winning to justify that expectation. Are they the second-best side in the world, ready to retain the Ashes later this year? Or are we witnessing cricket's equivalent of the England rugby team's decline after winning the World Cup in 2003, with Michael Vaughan starring as the never-seen-again Johnny Wilkinson?

England have won only one of their last eight Tests since taking a 2-1 lead in the Ashes last August. In four of those matches (Multan, Nagpur, Mumbai and Lord's), they have been in winning positions and only once turned their advantage into a result. The England football team have been a goal up in their four biggest games under Sven-Goran Eriksson (v Argentina and Brazil, World Cup 2002; v France and Portugal, European Championship 2004) yet have won only one. It may just be coincidence, it may be not.

But if the cricketers' lack of success in the winter could be excused by the quality of the opposition, injury, illness and, at a stretch, Ashes hangover, then the missed open goal at Lord's cannot be excused at all.

Are they the second-best side in the world, ready to retain the Ashes later this year? Or are we witnessing cricket equivalent of the England rugby team's decline after winning the World Cup in 2003, with Michael Vaughan starring as the never-seen-again Johnny Wilkinson?

Sri Lanka will feel that their second-innings fightback is a turning point in the series. And certainly their resilience was matched only by Tom Moody's in the face of selectorial interference from back home. But even with the possible addition of Lasith Malinga, Sri Lanka should not have the bowling to dismiss England twice.

The Lord's result ought to be a wake-up call for England and may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. It exposed the downside of having Flintoff as captain and also the obvious necessity for total focus even when you appear to have a side beaten.

But the fact remains that this Test is just another step on the way to Australia. The caution about the fitness of Vaughan and, more immediately, Steve Harmison show where England's priorities lie. That is how it has to be. If it was certain that Vaughan would be fit for the Ashes, then mixed performances this summer would not matter so much. It's so key for England that Vaughan is the man to walk out to toss the coin with Ricky Ponting on November 23 in Brisbane. It is he - and his team - who outmanoeuvred Ponting last year and the ability to re-open those wounds is vital to England's ability to retain the urn.

But we can't be certain when - or maybe even if - Vaughan will be fit, which makes planning for the Ashes a real headache for Duncan Fletcher and his crew. An England victory at Edgbaston would a bring a smile to his face, but not half as much as a phone call from Sheffield saying: "Coach, I'm back."

John Stern is editor of The Wisden Cricketer