August 7, 2013

England's magnificent seven

They may not possess Botham-standard superstars, but more than half their team consists of formidable players

Imagine you are the England cricket coach. It is the evening before a Test match and there is a knock at your hotel-room door. It is news of an injury to one of your players. So here is the question: in that first instant, before you've rationalised everything, who do you most hope isn't injured? In other words, who is England's Most Valuable Player? How do you rank your players on the eve of a vital Test?

James Anderson, I expect, would be the leading candidate to be England's MVP. Wasim Akram recently described Anderson as the best bowler of his generation. The first Test at Trent Bridge, when England had to squeeze one final effort from Anderson to seal victory, confirmed just how much they need their strike fast bowler. And it is bowlers, as every batsman secretly admits in his heart, who really win Test matches.

Personally, however, I might choose Graeme Swann as my MVP, the player I'd least want to be injured or unavailable. Why? Because he is the hardest to replace. The gap between Anderson and his understudy, Graham Onions, is smaller than that between Swann and Monty Panesar or James Tredwell. Having watched a Swann-less England labour for wickets in New Zealand in March, I'm in no rush to repeat the experience. But it's a marginal call, Swann or Anderson. Let's say they are equal first as MVPs, a mini-group of two at the top of the England Test family.

It is now that things get really interesting. Who is the third-most valuable England Test player? The difficulty of answering that question provides the argument of this column. England have a cluster of very good players bunched together in terms of value and effectiveness. It is rare for a team to have so many players performing at such a similar level - rare and very handy.

As a man for all conditions, whose unflappable commitment to scoring runs never wavers, I find it hard to look past Jonathan Trott as my first pick after Swann and Anderson. True, Trott looks short of his best at the moment, reflected in his world Test ranking of 15. But No. 3 is a crucial position and knowing it is ably filled gives authority to the whole batting line-up. Anyone who plays alongside Trott can be certain that he will pull his weight.

Everything I've just written about Trott applies equally to Alastair Cook. Unflappable, temperamentally rock-solid, calm and measured, run-hungry, and a superb concentrator, Cook is a master of getting the best out of himself. All the sports-psychology books about the art of concentration - finding the right balance between alertness and relaxation, periods of intense focus and then recuperative switching off between balls - could be replaced with a simple Youtube video of Cook.

Matthew Prior is another with a strong claim to be among England's top three most valuable Test players. His Test ranking is higher than all Australia's batsmen (except Clarke), not to mention the fact he also keeps wicket. Unselfish, positive and fast-scoring, Prior was rightly named England's player of the year in May.

On current form, that honour looks like it could next belong to Ian Bell. This series, Bell has gone a long way to dispelling the idea that he rarely produces his best on the biggest stage. If the weather had allowed the Old Trafford Test to run its full course, Bell might have ended up with his fourth consecutive Ashes Test hundred. Only Bradman has done better than that.

Hang on a moment, we have now analysed six leading England players and we haven't mentioned the most extravagant and explosive talent of them all - Kevin Pietersen. His 23rd Test hundred, at Old Trafford, was typically well timed. As in 2005, runs from Pietersen finally determined the destiny of the Ashes urn. For all his flamboyance, Pietersen has almost exactly the same Test record as Cook. He'll never be known as Mr Consistency, but the numbers tell the real story.

All good teams have a band of senior performers who lead the rest. But in this England team, there are more leaders than led

Pretty difficult to choose between them, isn't it? Trott, Cook, Prior, Bell, Pietersen, all sitting just behind Swann and Anderson. That is seven seasoned Test players, all aged in their late 20s or early 30s, at or near the peak of their powers.

The phrase "senior player" is thrown around a lot in sport. The best definition, I think, is a player from whom you know what you are getting. The more senior players in a team, the fewer nerves there are in the dressing room (and in the stands). Uncertainty breeds anxiety. In contrast, trust in your colleagues reinforces collective self-belief. All good teams have a band of senior performers who lead the rest. But in this England team, there are more leaders than led.

Contrast Australia. No prizes for guessing their MVP, Michael Clarke. Indeed, Australia's reliance on their captain has been the recurrent theme of the whole series. Every time Australia have batted this series, I have found myself thinking, "If Clarke gets a big hundred here, it could be a really good Test match." The point, of course, is that Clarke can't get a hundred every time, and knowing he has to score runs to give Australia a fighting chance creates a burden of accumulated anxiety. Clarke's prolific year in 2012 masked underlying structural flaws with Australia's batting. When the double-hundreds dried up, as double-hundreds tend to do, so too did Australia's performances.

Line up Australia's top six alongside England's top six. Everyone knows England are much stronger. Now take away the best player from each batting unit (so imagine Australia minus Clarke, England minus one of Cook/Trott/Pietersen/Bell). The difference becomes staggering. Over the course of a five-Test match series, it is almost impossible to bridge that divide, no matter how well the team bowls and competes.

England have retained the Ashes in just 14 days. There is no Botham, no Warne, no Gilchrist. Instead, there is a group of highly competent performers. And that adds up to a pretty formidable unit. It's not much of a headline, I admit, but it's the critical fact: the bunching together of England's cluster of most valuable players, their proximity in terms of ability and performance, is the key to the team's success.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • ESPN on August 10, 2013, 19:44 GMT

    The English are the most overrated team in the world!!! Anyone remember the UAE Tour?? They can only play like this in their own backyard!!! can't wait to see them tour Aussie or SA!! that's where we see how good the worlds supposedly best bowler is when compared wit the likes of the genuinely better bowlers!! Steyn starc Mitchell Johnson James pattinson can all out bowl a certain James Anderson any day !!!

  • Steve on August 9, 2013, 7:30 GMT

    @ clarke501........awefully quiet old son???? just clipped this quote from another story

    "The surface unveiled for the fourth Test maintains a pattern of dry, hard pitches prepared more or less to the specifications of the England coach Andy Flower"

    ..........ummmmm so what was that about not knowing whether England have request dry hard wickets?????

  • Tony on August 9, 2013, 1:54 GMT

    Mukesh and Shash, Perhaps you didn't notice, but the Ashes are contested between England and Australia (not South Africa), and this is what the article is about.

  • Shanthal on August 8, 2013, 19:30 GMT Don't need to start a forum war but your making predictions based on things that don't actually exist. You mentioned RIGHT NOW and currently, South Africa have the edge on England in every department apart from spin and the current crop of SA players aren't in their mid 30s; most of them apart from Kallis are in their prime. The age comparison with England's top batsmen is almost identical. As for the future, SA will have to adapt to life after Kallis, perhaps the last true all-rounder world cricket will ever see. And while SA are reliant on Steyn, take Anderson or Swann out and England have struggled against middling sides like NZ. I agree they shouldn't risk AB's batting on keeping duties and I think they have plenty of keeping options to have AB move to 4 when Kallis moves on. The future will play out as it will but have no doubt, since '07 SA has been the best Test team in the world; they just don't have the media power of India, ENG or AUS to flaunt it

  • Dummy4 on August 8, 2013, 19:27 GMT

    England are indeed in a much better position than Australia are right now. It is very undesirable if you are dependent on one player like Clarke for the Aussies. Cook, Trott, Bell, Pietersen, Prior, Anderson and Swann are all very fine players and have made England a strong team. They can do well even if you take 1 or 2 guys out.

  • David on August 8, 2013, 18:57 GMT

    @ cric_J. I really respect Jimmy's bowling. He has a very good record against most of the top batsmen. I think that the challenge helps him to up his intensity & focus. If he had more consistent support at the other end - as you said Dale has with Morkel & Philander - he would get better rewards. Batsmen are allowed to relax during Broad's wildly inconsistent spells, & with the (mostly) lack of pressure from Bresnan, Finn etc.

    I like that he is smart in his approach and builds strategies for batsmen. Also like that he does not sacrifice accuracy & control in looking for more speed or in trying to "dominate" batsmen. He and Dale don't push as hard for speed as they do for control. That Dale can do so with more pace is a big plus as you observed.

    I hate that the media do this to Jimmy. It does nothing for him, & generates negative attention he neither deserves nor needs. Overall, he is Eng's biggest asset - he leads the attack that HAS to take 20 wickets - a big responsibility!

  • mukesh on August 8, 2013, 15:51 GMT

    @shanthaal perera - just said my opinion , i dont want to start another forum war here , what i feel about SA is they wont be able to sustain this for much longer , watch out for that team when Kallis makes his inevitable retirement , also their attack is too dependent on Steyn , they don't have a single quality spinner , dont have a good specialist keeper (and is risking the superb batting talent of AB by making him keep wickets . lets not forget he has a history of back problems) , England seems to have all those bases covered , solid talented top 6 (at right age and enough experience) , one of the best specialist keeper batsman , a world class spinner and a good pace attack

  • Michael Ponnudurai on August 8, 2013, 8:26 GMT

    @Thegimp: Well said. I fully agree

  • Sarma on August 8, 2013, 4:39 GMT

    ThyrSaadam is absolutely spot on in understanding James Anderson whose best came in the familiar English conditions. In 49 tests, he bowled 11,050 balls; conceded 5,564 runs and took 206 wkts at an average of 27.01 and a strike rate of 54 balls every wicket. Rating of 76.34.

    But in unfamiliar conditions of Sri Lanka, what happened to this 'great' bowler ? In 4 tests, he bowled 814 balls; conceded 448 runs and took 11 wkts at an average of 40.73 and a strike rate of 74 balls every wicket. Rating of 41.57.

    His performances varied in various countries. In Australia it was 63.01. In India, 61.2; In NZL 52.08; In SAF 62.68; In UAE 51.2; In Windies, 59 marks.

    Overall, his performance is about 68 marks; definitely not 'great' but good.

  • Sarma on August 8, 2013, 2:15 GMT

    Other bowler ratings: Peter Pollock, Ian Bishop, Richie Benaud, Harhajan Singh, Ray Lindwall, Angus Fraser - 70 Vinoo Mankad, Bruce Reid, Terry Alderman, BS Chandrasekhar - 69; James Anderson, Mitchell Johnson, Neil Adcock, Trevor Goddard - 68 John Snow, Alan Connolly, Jason Gillespie - 67 Panesar, Underwood, Laker, Kapil Dev, Ashley Mallett - 66 Brett Lee, Tony Lock, Bruce Yardley - 65 Venkatapathy Raju, Vanburn Holder, Geoff Lawson, Morne Morkel, Sarfraz Nawaz, JB Statham, Merv Hughes - 64 etc.

    James Anderson as one of the all-time great bowlers ? No. His career so far doesn't indicate so.

    Bob Willis ? He is at 60.