From chaos to a happy place
A year that began in disarray for England has ended with a glut of triumphs that bring to mind some of their finest achievements of the decade. A year that began with Kevin Pietersen and Peter Moores at the helm, but tugging the rudder in opposite directions, has finished with Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower bedding in as the most composed and harmonious captain-coach combination since the heyday of Duncan Fletcher and Michael Vaughan. A year that began with the humiliation of 51 all out in Jamaica ended with an innings triumph in Durban - a result to savour like few that England have ever pulled off overseas.
A year that began with mocking laughter from Down Under has finished with England as Ashes winners for the second time in four years, and in between whiles they have even achieved some measure of competence in one-day cricket - of which more later. All in all, it's been a year to remember, both for the results that have arisen and the manner in which they have been achieved. In years to come, when England revert inevitably to their frustrating ways of old, 2009 will be taken as proof that fortunes can be transformed almost at the flick of a switch, so long as there is a collective will to do so.
And it was indeed the collective that enabled England to become a force once again, for 2009 owed as much to the unsung heroes as the standout performers. Strauss was imperious as an opening batsman, as he revelled in the responsibility of leading the team he ought to have inherited from Vaughan back in 2006, and cracked 1172 runs in 14 Tests, while Graeme Swann emerged as the most confident and attacking spin bowler in world cricket, and the first from England ever to manage 50 Test wickets in a calendar year. But their efforts would have come to nothing had it not been for the belt-and-braces efforts that kept the team afloat in between whiles.
Take Paul Collingwood, for instance, who rescued the Ashes opener in Cardiff with a five-hour 74, then repeated the feat in Centurion before Christmas, grafting a vital 26 not out to repel the fury of Friedel de Wet. Take the long-forgotten Monty Panesar, and his fellow tailenders James Anderson and, in Centurion, Graham Onions, who glued their bats to their front pads and blocked their way to two vital draws. Having lost embarrassingly in the Caribbean in the spring (and having failed to capture the public imagination during a dismal return series in May), England could easily have been sizing up three defeats out of three in their marquee series. And had January's poisonous atmosphere not been dispersed, that is surely the record they would have been nursing.
Talking of Onions, his earthy heroism with the ball brought to mind the highfaluting failings of his Durham team-mate Steve Harmison, whom he rightly usurped in the Test squad due to his greater willingness to get down and dirty for the greater good of the team. All in all, it was not a good year for the big cheeses. Pietersen went from January humiliation to August anonymity, and was even upstaged on his return to South Africa in November by Jonathan Trott. Andrew Flintoff, meanwhile, saved his best for a single barnstorming bowling spell at Lord's, but was limping towards retirement long before the Ashes reached its climax.
Humility, enforced or otherwise, was a clear feature of England's performances, and it even extended to the one aspect of their cricket that not even the legends of 2005 could quite be bothered with. Like toddlers learning to walk, England were not without sizeable mishaps in their one-day performances - they were stuffed 6-1 by Australia in a series that should never have been scheduled so close to an Ashes finale, and they also tripped up in comical fashion against the Netherlands in the World Twenty20. But from an important if untrumpeted series win in the Caribbean, via a semi-final showing in the Champions Trophy, and all the way to an impressive maiden triumph in South Africa, they showed a rare determination to improve their dismal reputation, and as Australia have shown for decades, success begets success, no matter the colour of the clothing.
And as it happens, few moments in England's year were as important as the forgotten ODI triumph in the Caribbean. When England set off on that trip with the embers of their flare-up still glowing, Flower and Strauss had not the slightest inkling as to how they would gel, and Flower wasn't even sure he wanted the full-time role. But as the series wore on and the near-misses mounted in Antigua and Trinidad, it became clear that England had chanced upon a winning combination.
But after surrendering the Wisden Trophy, the pair still needed a result to stick on their CVs, and with a little help from John Dyson's arithmetic and that man Flintoff, who hasn't played in limited-overs cricket since his series-winning hat-trick, that is what they achieved. By the time they had seen off South Africa in Port Elizabeth eight months later, they had identified a potential star of the future in Eoin Morgan, and were sure enough of their direction to jettison Owais Shah, whose impressive 98 in the Champions Trophy came too late to dispel the doubts about his temperament after a decade of nearly-man status. The message is clear. Henceforth, only the toughest team players need apply.
New kid on the block
It's a peculiar fact that England's most buoyant discovery of the past 12 months has been lurking in the backs of the selectors' minds for longer than anyone else in the current Test XI. Graeme Swann toured South Africa precisely a decade ago, and played a solitary ODI in Bloemfontein before being ostracised for seven years by Duncan Fletcher, for a combination of crimes against punctuality and humility. What a gem he overlooked. Those years in exile have taught Swann all the tricks of the offspinner's trade, and persuaded him to seize the day now that his belated opportunity has come about. On debut in December 2008, he claimed two wickets in his very first over, and that trait of striking early has served him well ever since, not least during his finest hour to date, in Durban last week. His confidence, dare one say it, is almost Warne-esque in character - and his lower-order tonking is a joy to behold.
If Fletcher's judgment on Swann was prematurely damning, then he'll doubtless permit himself a quiet "I told you so" about another spinner to have featured prominently during his time as coach. Monty Panesar's most notable performance of 2009 came with the bat, when he and James Anderson survived 69 deliveries on the final day in Cardiff, to save the Test, turning the Ashes. It was also his final act for the foreseeable future in international cricket. Swann's instant impact, and moreover his willingness and ability to think on his feet, have shown up Panesar's robotic obsession with good areas. A dismal county season brought an end to his 10-year association with Northamptonshire, and perhaps the spin-friendly atmosphere at Hove will raise his game back to the heights of 2006. But damningly, James Tredwell was named as cover for Swann during the tour of South Africa, despite Panesar being billeted down the road with the Highveld Lions.
In terms of popular acclaim, nothing could match the achievement of winning back the Ashes, as England took a flawed but thrilling series two Tests to one, in a contest that lacked the sheer intensity of the 2005 version but was nonetheless blessed with more than enough ebb and flow to keep the nation gripped. But from the point of view of an England management who saw that triumph as a stepping stone to greater glories rather than an end in itself (as it had been four years earlier), the manner in which the team launched their tour of South Africa was even more satisfying. A shared Twenty20 series, a victory in the one-dayers, and a 1-0 lead in the Tests as the year drew to a close.
At least England got their crisis out of their system nice and early. Mind you, it was something special, a conflagration of Pakistani standards, as Pietersen instigated a coup against his coach, Moores, and found himself out on his ear as a result. Twelve months on, it is hard to recall quite how poisonous the atmosphere was within the England set-up, with accusations of cliques and backstabbers in every corner of the dressing room. It actually meant that what followed in Sabina Park, though hideous to behold, was actually a blessing in disguise. From the nadir of 51 all out, England had nowhere to hide and only one direction in which to take their subsequent fortunes.
What 2010 holds
The immediate focus is on Cape Town and the Wanderers, two massive Test matches in which England have a chance to emulate the achievement of Vaughan's men in 2004-05, and win in South Africa for only the second time since readmission. After that, however, the challenge will be to maintain focus throughout a fallow nine months that offer little in the way of headline acts. Bangladesh at home and away, followed by the mercurial Pakistanis and an overkill of a one-day series against Australia, will test the intensity of Strauss's tightly bound unit. But then it's off to Australia for another defence of the Ashes. And after what they've overcome in the past 12 months, they'll surely believe that vengeance for the whitewash is a distinct possibility.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo