August 27, 2015

What England have learned from the Ashes

Eleven things the series has brought to light about Cook and Co

Ben Stokes turned the summer for England, and Joe Root was their greatest asset © Getty Images

The problem with winning is that the emotions are so intense they blind you to the actual facts, and so the experience teaches you very little of value. You find exactly the same thing with defeat, of course, but that's not England's problem right now.

So after a wonderful see-sawing Ashes series, in which Australia played like fools on three occasions while England only did so twice, it's time for both sides to have a bit of a think and work out what to do next. Here are 11 conclusions - 11 being a sound cricketing number - that England can draw from a memorably exciting, memorably gratifying and memorably flawed summer of cricket.

1. England are better than they thought, better than anybody thought. With the 5-0 humiliation in Australia in 2013-14 still vivid in everybody's mind, and their wincingly awful performance at the World Cup even fresher in the memory, a rebirth seemed a million miles away. But with a devastating combination of youth, aggression and genuine luck - Brad Haddin's dropped catch demands particular attention here - England turned the corner and presented us with three spectacular victories.

2. Alastair Cook is a captain. He was forced into an invidious position after the sacking of Kevin Pietersen and was horribly uncomfortable as a result. But he pulled through without losing his team-mates in the process, eventually gaining from the experience. In his own restored confidence the team itself was revitalised.

3. Attacking cricket wins matches. New Zealand's performances at the World Cup followed by their two-match too-short tour in England put attacking cricket in everybody's mind. Ben Stokes' glorious counter-attacking century against New Zealand at Lord's was England's deathbed conversion to 21st century cricket, and they carried that mood into the Ashes series.

4. But traditional Test match virtues still matter. That was shown in negative fashion by some of the desperate batting of the Australian batsmen, who appeared to think that lateral movement in a cricket ball is unfair, unaware that there's a difference between batting and teeing-off. Cook's 43 in England's only innings at Trent Bridge was a knock out of all proportion to the numbers, blunting the Australian attack and making it possible for Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow to bat the game away from Australia.

Traditional Test match virtues still matter. That was shown in negative fashion by some of the desperate batting of the Australian batsmen, who appeared to think that lateral movement in a cricket ball is unfair

5. English conditions suit English bowlers. What's more, thrilling cricket with a balance between bat and ball is more meaningful than attritional cricket played on a chief executive's wicket designed to last a fortnight. Cricket has an awful tendency to become not batsman-friendly but batsman-downright-ingratiating - an approach that makes for comparatively worthless cricket. This summer's cricket will linger in the memory and make cricket a better-followed game because it was brilliant. The fact that it didn't last for all 25 days shouldn't worry anyone in English cricket for a second.

6. Cook needs an opening partner. That conclusion lies in the land of the bleeding obvious. He actually had a half-decent one in Nick Compton, but he didn't last long, apparently because people found him hard to get on with. That's seems a pretty poor reason dropping a player. And it's created a problem.

7. Moeen Ali is a terrific cricketer who can't do the job he's picked for. Which is to bowl for a full session while the quick bowlers take turns at the opposite end. As a Test match No. 8, he's stupendous: the sort you badly want in the team. But picking people for their secondary talents is a road to defeat that England have trodden far too often. Perhaps the answer is to recalibrate Ali as a batting allrounder - which means another spinner. Let's see how Adil Rashid plays in the UAE.

8. Joe Root is likely to become one of the greats. He has the shots, he has the temperament, and what he does best to take a match away from an opponent. England's batting strategy is now rooted on Root: so much so that they are wisely resting him for the one-dayers. In this series he has emerged as England's greatest asset: he needs to be cherished.

It's time to turn Moeen Ali into a batting allrounder and pick a specialist spinner © AFP

9. Stuart Broad is one of the great hot-and-colders in cricket. He always has been but he proved it at Trent Bridge on a morning that will forever define his career. How to explain it? It's one of the great mysteries of sport: that doing the same thing in the same way in the same conditions, a player can be okay but ineffective (The Oval) and unplayable (Trent Bridge). I wonder why they always give the Man-of-the-Series award to the batsman who got the most runs.

10. Australia aren't as good as England thought. Nor is any opponent. That's one of the eternal truths of sport: your opponents always look like supermen, like machines, like creatures uniquely favoured by the gods, and yet when you prick them they bleed. When you do so again they panic. The humanity of the opposition is something only a winner can see: but the more you build up an opponent the more effectively you prepare yourself for failure.

11. England are not as good as they hoped. Naturally there was a tendency to think they had become unbeatable after that stupendous morning in Nottingham, but the second-rate display at The Oval was a useful reminder not to get too giddy. England are a flawed side, but one that can play some of the most thrilling cricket in the world. I wonder if that will continue: England as the new Pakistan, forever at your feet or at your throat.

Test match cricket is wonderfully complicated game even if it sometimes plays into the hands of people who believe the exact opposite. England have a team whose flaws are as obvious and almost as fascinating as their virtues. The summer has been a wonderful adventure. Time now to sit back and savour it for a while… in the sure and certain knowledge that the next adventure won't be long delayed.

Simon Barnes is a former chief sportswriter of the Times and the author of more than 20 books

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