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After proving their mastery over West Indies, England's only doubts surround No. 6 - and here the selectors might just get lucky once again
May 28, 2012
News : Bresnan stats rival England greats
Report : Nine-wicket win gives England series
Features : Samuels' lone defiance
Features : Bresnan battles but Bairstow struggles
Features : West Indies' good work undone in a flash
Matches: England v West Indies at Nottingham
Series/Tournaments: West Indies tour of England
Finally, England pushed the door open good and proper. At Lord's the gulf between the sides was evident but not cataclysmic. Here at Trent Bridge it has been as near as damn it. A pity, frankly, because there are signs - I know, we keep saying it but there are signs - that West Indies are on a better track. Clearly there is stomach for the fight and a long process of learning has brought fruit, most especially with Marlon Samuels and Kemar Roach. The trouble is that though heart and spirit matter, talent matters more and these two stand alone. Mind you, England have got a few teams covered on that one.
First then to Andrew Strauss, who must wonder about the madness of it all. One minute looking down the barrel, the next tapping on the shoulders of Walter Hammond, Colin Cowdrey and Geoff Boycott at the top of the list of England's hundred-makers. Lucky for him to have the opportunity to go past such names this summer. Even luckier to have been born of equable temperament - not too low a month back, not too high now.
He really is a crackerjack leader, not least when it comes to controlling the lads during those tricky DRS moments. By heaven Stuart Broad throws his weight at these, which isn't to say that Graeme Swann and Matt Prior are backward in coming forward with their enthusiasm. Strauss has to decipher, digest and decide quickly. He calls it right so often it's creepy. Maybe he gets inside an umpire's head as easy as that of an England cricketer. Seriously, this is a science that when so carefully explored and applied is worth a wicket or two.
Come to think of it, can you recall seeing Strauss flustered by anything? I can't, certainly not by his own. He likes it that the players express themselves. Indeed, one senses a quiet amusement at the self-fulfilling prophecies around him. He is top dollar with his men, with the media and, thankfully, with the bat once more. If there is a grumble, it is about an oddly unimaginative tactical eye. Swann did not bowl until after lunch today, which would be a surprise on the first morning of a Test, never mind the fourth with England straining for a breakthrough. At the risk of repeating this column of a week ago after the win at Lord's, the very best thing Strauss has done, with Andy Flower tight at his side, is to create an environment in which opinion, trust, discipline and flair have equal measure.
Now to the future. England have a very different test to come against South Africa, a team that almost exactly mirrors their own. Varied and productive batting, classy and accurate fast bowling, high quality ground fielding and close catching. Swann offers more to his captain than Imran Tahir if the pitches are as usual. Should it become a very dry summer, Imran may have more of an impact but, then, so might reverse swing. Jacques Kallis is the trump card of course: a better fourth seamer than any at England's disposal, a keen student of reverse swing and a master batsman. West Indian batting technique is woeful, South Africa's, best illustrated by Kallis, anything but.
The point here is England's one Achilles heel, the No. 6 spot. The selectors might have got lucky with Ravi Bopara's injury, so eager were they to look at Jonny Bairstow's exuberant talent. Now they might be lucky again with Bopara's impending return to arms. Bairstow's short-ball problem against Kemar Roach - it is a wicked short ball by the way, genuinely fast, skiddy and throat high - will have dented the Yorkshire tyro's pride and may well have compromised the selectors' faith. Not long-term but right now. The consequence of which may be to Bopara's profit. If so his lively, swinging medium-pacers could be as handy for Strauss as a more experienced batting technique will be for a middle order that is sure to be thoroughly worked over by South Africa's hunting pack.
This is conjecture, of course, and there is still another match against West Indies to be put away, one in which Bairstow will almost certainly have the chance of reply. What we know as fact is that England, like all really good teams, know their moment and up the ante accordingly. The third evening was a classic of its type: a weak team in deficit and a limited time to play. In went England for the kill - swift, lethal. Thrilling to watch actually, in the way that the Australians were for so long. There is no higher praise than that.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UKFeeds: Mark Nicholas
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