Signs a corner has been turned by England
After three absorbing matches, England have reason for encouragement. Five day matches are not called "Tests" for nothing. These have been stern examinations of character and, in the main, Alastair Cook's team have handled themselves well. At tea on the third day at Trent Bridge, the omens were not good but first Stuart Broad and then James Anderson combined with Joe Root to fly the flag for a conspicuously united and committed team.
The problem for England is skill, or the lack of it. Of three international class batsmen, only one, Joe Root, is playing as he can. Cook is not so much out of form - though that too, by definition - as seemingly unable to spring clean his technique. The longer you play and the more runs you make, the more your opponents find a way to break you down. By bowling a full length just a tad outside off-stump, the best bowlers are exposing Cook's back foot set-up. He needs to think inside a tunnel, to imagine himself playing the ball down that tunnel. He needs to think in straight lines - in short, he has to hit the ball back from whence it came with a quicker forward transfer of his weight. The cover drive should go for now, replaced by the discipline of straight drives and forward defensive shots that that roll back down the pitch, instead of towards cover.
Ian Bell is the surprise. The sense of permanency that we enjoyed from him last summer has gone, replaced by confident starts that precede sloppy mistakes. The ball whistles from the middle of his bat so, again, form is not the issue. But he keeps getting out. Belly, you just have to stay in! If an international batsman must do anything, he must sell his wicket dearly. The understanding of responsibility is something that comes with time and experience. He is England's No. 4, a pivotal figure in a proud position. After a 101 Test matches, Bell should have grasped the nettle.
Credit then to Root, who is doing exactly that. His innings have rythmn. His temperament is sound and his assessment of situations is first-class. He adapts to the various challenges put before him with remarkable efficiency, as he did here. The masterful way in which he first allowed Broad his head and then coaxed the very best from Anderson was something to behold.
In the London Evening Standard magazine of 10 days ago, there was a feature on Cook, Broad and Anderson titled "Rising from the Ashes". It was not written for the cricket fan but for the general consumer. It began thus: "When the idea of an interview with England's leading cricketers was first mooted, no-one could have foreseen the circumstances in which it would take place. This time last year England were the finest cricket team on the planet, preparing to follow an historic series win in India under the new leadership of dashing, record-breaking batsman Alastair Cook. The players walked on water. When we gathered in Leeds a fortnight ago, a very different mood prevailed. In their last eight Test matches, England have now lost six and drawn two."
Make that lost seven and drawn three after the defeat at Headingley against Sri Lanka and this stalemate at Trent Bridge. There is no hiding place. The world is watching, expecting, demanding. The players are privileged and well paid. Tickets to see them in action are expensive. Test cricket needs a strong England, just as it needs a strong India. Articles in magazines such as the ES are important because they project the game beyond its usual boundaries. Such articles will only appear if the team in winning, as the author explained in the paragraph just quoted. England may not have been the best team on the planet in the middle of last summer, neither did they walk on water, but they were motoring along pretty nicely.
Things change quickly in sport. Ask Brazil. Or ask Australia for that matter. If someone had told you that the Australian team who were beaten 3-0 in England would follow up that embarrassment by hammering England 5-0 just a few months later in Australia, you would have, at the very least, argued the point.
During this last five days there have been signs that a corner has been turned. England appeared to play with a different attitude. No longer was there a sense that the game owed them, rather that they would go out and earn their success. Nobody moaned about the dreadful pitch or bad umpiring decisions or the absent DRS or losing the toss or anything in fact, they just got on with it.
Cook played the match with a smile on his face, as if he had woken up one morning after the disastrous last couple of days at Headingley and thought, to hell with this, I might just as well enjoy myself as retreat into a hole of despair. From afar, it looked - for the first time in a long time - as if he was the leader, not a follower of the strong characters around him. From his relative lightness of being came greater tactical imagination. There were smart field placements and funky field placements. There was a consolidation of thinking as bowlers worked as one with their leader's ambition. He still doesn't see the value in having someone down at third man but that is a common theme among the modern captains. Generally, he had a good and happy match and was relaxed in his post-match interviews. Now for some runs.
Broad and Anderson may need some protection. They are bowling a ridiculous amount of overs given that five Tests are to be crammed into 42 days. Perhaps each could miss one Test, given that Chris Jordan is a promising replacement and Steven Finn is beginning to find his mojo for Middlesex.
The real issue is the spinner. Moeen Ali is a handy bowler, for a batsman. He would benefit from more support in the go-to situations that revolve around Broad and Anderson. He took two big wickets on the fourth evening but rather than continue with him, Cook threw the ball to the fast men. Having said that, Moeen is not the solution to the problem.
Simon Kerrigan has been added to the party for Lord's. Yes, the same Kerrigan who suffered humiliation at The Oval last August. Let us hope the selectors know their man. If a specialist spinner is to play at Lord's, one less vulnerable might have been the answer. Gareth Batty of Surrey is bowling well, says Alec Stewart. There you go, a stop gap answer. Batty has played for England before, knows the ropes and loves a scrap. Frankly, England would do worse than settle on him for the summer, thus ending the debate until a younger man clearly emerges with the talent for the job.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK