England's magnificent seven
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.
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.