July 12, 2012

No shackles for new England

Their one-day (and Test) cricket resurgence has plenty to do with a change of attitude

Why is the England cricket team suddenly so much better than we thought - even out in the 50-over fields? I know, already you think, "Here comes another of those colonial lectures - suffocation by England, his England." Well, maybe, but you have to admit they look a pretty good outfit. Yes, the conditions are handy right now - hand warmers, the moving ball, the long, slow drip of an innings - and the Australians looked "a point", as the French might say. But believe it, Captains Cook and Strauss and their merry men have got something going that is the envy of just about everyone else.

The biggest change in English cricket has been attitude. Not so long ago, rain meant a day off; now it means a missed opportunity. County players rejoiced in not playing - the suits can't fire you if you haven't taken guard - and young players had their enthusiasm chipped at by old pros who wanted baths run and drinks served. You dared not speak unless spoken to. Ah, that wretched rite of passage that earned England many a moniker abroad. Now, though, much of abroad is in England and the immigrant minorities drive the culture every bit as much as do the locals. Two of the last three coaches have been out of Zimbabwe, a place where the chance of a game of cricket is not a given. Slowly, over a decade, and with the telling purpose of Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss galvanising the dressing room, the idea of playing international cricket has done a 360 - from Fear Index to Fun House.

In Test cricket, where you can grind an opponent down, the results of this new philosophy were apparent the minute a bowling attack emerged. In one-day cricket, where risk has a greater premium, England did not break out of their introspection so easily. Shackled and drawn, those players plucked from the county game's inglorious past were overrun by the free spirits they faced overseas. The first people to understand this and react to it (not easy) were Dermot Reeve and Adam Hollioake, at Warwickshire and Surrey respectively, but neither was a truly international cricketer himself, and thus had no more than a fleeting influence on the game around him. Both knew that it was okay to be caught at long-off or to bowl a long-hop in an attempt at a bouncer. "Let go of yourself," they cried, "show off your crazy diamonds!" But, like the ghostly runs made from midfield by Martin Peters in 1966, they were before their time and not so widely appreciated.

England have come so far that these days it is a bit of a let-down if Ian Bell does not smash the new ball over mid-off for six - like the Stones not playing "Satisfaction". Alastair Cook, of all people, has taken to backing outside leg stump and rifling a respectable delivery through cover. Stuart Broad bowls a collection of allsorts that Derek Shackleton could no more relate to than the salary Broad earns from them.

A clear, uninhibited approach has allowed the tactics to advance alongside it. England's strongest suit is a set of bowlers who look to attack. "Keep it tight, son" has morphed into "Knock him over, Finny"

England are winning 50-over matches - 12 without a loss in a row, which include four consecutive successes against Pakistan in the drier than dry UAE, some sort of compensation for the Test series thumping - because their minds are in the fun house. This is not to say they are without discipline. Far from it, discipline is at the core of their performance. It is a philosophical thing and is spreading to the county game, allowing players such as Jonny Bairstow and Jade Dernbach to arrive in the England set-up all clued up.

A clear, uninhibited approach has allowed the tactics to advance alongside it. England's strongest suit is a set of bowlers who look to attack. "Keep it tight, son" has morphed into "Knock him over, Finny." So regularly do England take wickets that momentum against them is a rare thing. The selectors are choosing specialists and it shows. The bowlers are comfortable in their skin; the batsmen understand the construction of an innings and then apply that knowledge to the demands of a run rate, each with their own take on innovation; the fielders hunt run-outs as an expression of their desire, not as an option with an overthrow as the downside.

Of course, the two new white balls have played into English hands and will continue to do so, even on the subcontinent, where much is left to prove. India is not convinced by England because England have never been convincing in India. Good fast bowlers and batsmen who rely on method for their initial progress thrive on the luxury of two new balls, the hardness, the seam, the sheen. Wristier batting and more fiddly bowling - old ball, soft ball cricket - will be needed in MS Dhoni's land early next year.

For the minute, though, it is South Africa who must tell us just how good England are. On the green and pleasant lands of home, no one else is running close and most are running scared. Amongst these South Africans are some of the best in the world. Graeme Smith will not be bullied and Jacques Kallis will not be moved. The bowling attack is worthy of the name and the fielders catch flies. But they will have to be at their best to break this England - confident, cocky, charismatic England, where the culture changed and so did the results.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • darius on July 15, 2012, 10:43 GMT

    @5wombats yes ,mate India is definitely going to beat England later this year.and you 'll hide.and i bet deep down in your heart you have the same feeling and to add you cannot ask ,who should be or should not be posting in this forum

  • Martin on July 15, 2012, 7:12 GMT

    @Abhinav Sachdeva on (July 13 2012, 10:17 AM GMT) - we've heard all this before. By the way the 1-1 in Australia in 2004 was NOT a series win, drawing a series is NOT winning a series and so it continues to be the case that india have never won a Test series in either SA or Aus, despite what you think about 2004. Things change. Just because England were rubbish in the recent past - it doesn't mean they are rubbish now. Rubbish teams don't go to Australia and win series with 3 Innings victories. Things change. In 2007 india beat England in England, but that's not what happened in 2011 - because things change. India beat England at Chennai in Dec 2008 - it doesn't mean that india are going to beat England later this year.

  • Martin on July 14, 2012, 10:52 GMT

    Why are all these indians here? What the .... has it got to do with india? @Cpt.Meanster - what are you in particular doing here? Just a few days ago you were saying how much you hated Test cricket - so surely you have nothing to say. please publish.

  • Jay on July 14, 2012, 2:30 GMT

    @Yorkshirematt: haha I got your name wrong. Sorry buddy. Well true what you said regarding India's best cricketing period during the early 2000s. Yes the Indian team NEVER received credit from other quarters when they were a good test playing nation. It's unfortunate because India were the ONLY team who could beat Australia anywhere in all formats at that time. It was a big deal given India are an Asian team. A lot of those victories and sublime performances were due to Sourav Ganguly, the Prince of Calcutta. His leadership instilled a new attitude among a brand new generation of Indian cricketers who could dream big. He taught players to believe in themselves. Now, Dhoni is a splendid captain but he lacks the aura of Ganguly. If India are to dominate again in tests overseas then the team needs a new leader.

  • Matthew on July 13, 2012, 19:46 GMT

    India's best cricket was played during the early 2000s when Australia were at their peak. Therefore this could be another reason they never got the credit they deserved. They were the closest to Aus at that time

  • Jay on July 13, 2012, 19:21 GMT

    @Yorkshiremate: Yours is the most sensible comment out of the lot, of course following comments from my good friend Nutcutlet. England have never been this convincing in a long long time, hence the appreciation and novelty. I am happy for England as an Indian fan. I am tired of baseless predictions from both English and Indian fans alike. Let's see what happens in the winter. If India play well they will beat England, if England play well they will win. This is sports. If India look for revenge then that can cloud their focus. I suggest India keep doing what they have been doing so well for ages, play fierce and competitive cricket and beat England. England on the other hand should be ready to 'embrace' Indian conditions and keep all their players healthy. It will be a gruelling tour.

  • Dummy4 on July 13, 2012, 18:24 GMT

    England's attitude has gone under constant change-for the better.they are playing better One day cricket than they did during the WC.They are still improving and right now is the team to beat.

  • amit on July 13, 2012, 16:55 GMT

    To beat india in india, eng need to hav two good spinners...although they hav swan bt i guess india ll play him very well...n its the new ball which could give them upper hand ... and need to get sehwag wicket early....cz his agressive attitude suit in subcontinent....otherwise thr is less chance of winning series.....bt this series ll be more important for india for their future....they ll hav a new batting lineup.....n thats where eng's experience ll count....personally i dont feel swan ll give eng any benefit...its the new ball which ll decide the result.....if eng win in india they ll be the nxt great team in the history of cricket....

  • Mike on July 13, 2012, 16:50 GMT

    Err India have NEVER won a Test series in Australia and SA and most the time lose in England. For a 'big' team never to have won a series in either of these countries is why people think of them as even bigger home bullies than England are now.

    Would India ever go to Australia and win 3 games by huge margins like England did ? I would never bet on it any time soon. And England DO deserve credit for thrashing PAK in the limited overs games and getting a draw in Lanka, where of course Pakistan have just been comfortably beaten.

    I don't expect England to win in India but they could well draw the series imo just as they did in 2006 (IIRC) when they were actually a far worse team. The biggest challenge for England on the India trip will be holding back the wounded animal looking for revenge after the thrashing they got in England. If England can stand up to that initial aggression they could even win the series. Certainly they won't be getting beat 4-0, of that I am sure.

  • Matthew on July 13, 2012, 15:10 GMT

    @Abhinav Sachdeva Why not look at it this way? India may not get the credit they deserve because everyone expects them to win at home because they are so good there and have been for the last 20 years. Take it as a complement that no one bothers to report on Indian wins at home as it is so common. For England, who have only been winning consistently, even at home, for the last three years, it's still a novelty.

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