January 6, 2011

Annus mirabilis

Winning a world title and retaining the Ashes - have England ever had a better year?

In the space of a heady 12 months England have been crushed by an innings in Johannesburg, blown away at The Oval by Pakistan, thumped on a Perth flyer by Australia, and beaten for the first time in history by Bangladesh. These are hardly the raw materials you would expect to find in your average world-beating outfit, but make no mistake, 2010 was an incredible year for England. The fact that those setbacks show such clear room for improvement makes the prospects for 2011 all the more alluring.

More than anything 2010 was a year of reawakening. Emotionally their achievements may not have resonated with the public to quite the same extent as the team's rise and rise under Michael Vaughan in 2004-05 - back at a time when the capturing of the Ashes was the only mission that really counted after two decades in which such a prospect had seemed utterly inconceivable. But five years on, there's a more rounded sense of purpose to the current squad. The stated endgame for Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss is for England to become the best cricket team in the world, an intentionally fluid objective that treats victories as starting points, not destinations.

The full picture of England's year will not be complete until the Sydney Test has been concluded - though all signs point to a favourable result there. However, the strides they have made to date have been immense, not least in one-day cricket, a form of the game that previous regimes had treated like toxic assets to be stashed away in a bad bank and kept out of sight of the accountants. Now all of a sudden they have stormed the boardroom to become World Twenty20 champions, and they have not lost a series in 15 attempts across all three forms of the game. The only contest in 15 months in which they haven't emerged with at least a share of the silverware is the Champions Trophy in October 2009, and even then they surpassed expectations to reach the semi-finals.

Not a single aspect of England's year was left to chance, which is remarkable given that, on paper at least, their itinerary was the sort that would have led previous regimes to drop their guard and save all their best efforts for the Aussies. Home and away series against Bangladesh did not quicken the pulse, nor did the prospect of four Tests against a Pakistan team shorn of its star names (although the Pakistanis inevitably forced a revision of that assessment for all manner of reasons, more of which later). As for the World Twenty20… forget it, we presumed, after watching Jonathan Trott and Joe Denly flounder at the top of the order during a two-match stopover against Pakistan in Dubai.

But somehow, every step of the way England managed to achieve selectorial alchemy. Lurking in the Emirates on that same brief stopover was one Craig Kieswetter, who qualified as an Englishman only hours after battering the Lions to victory over the senior side in a warm-up in Abu Dhabi. He was instantly appended to the ODI squad for Bangladesh, where he scored his maiden century in Chittagong, and within three months he had claimed the Man-of-the-Match award in the World Twenty20 final in Barbados. Likewise Steven Finn and Tim Bresnan, neither original picks in the Test party for Bangladesh, both cut their teeth for the Ashes on that trip - the challenge of surmounting the deadest wickets in the world game more than compensated for the relative paucity of the opposition.

The decision to name Alastair Cook as captain for that Bangladesh trip was amply justified by hindsight. Not only did it ensure Andrew Strauss had a long and much-needed break after his exertions of the previous year, it sharpened the intensity of a tour that could otherwise have been humdrum for the England team. Anything less than five wins out of five would have been seen as a failure for Cook, and in the second ODI, in Mirpur, England sailed perilously close to defeat. But when the pressure was on he responded superbly with hundreds in each of the Tests - much as he did to give England their flying start in Australia.

And then there was Paul Collingwood's fortnight of glory in the Caribbean. It was a year of three captains but a single unifying cause, and no sight was more uplifting than the moment in which Collingwood struck the winning runs off Shane Watson in the World Twenty20 final. The most loyal foot soldier in the England team, who had begun the year with the third of his invaluable Test rearguards in Cape Town, suddenly found himself being mentioned in the same breath as Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, the only other England captains to have claimed a global sporting title.

The year was made memorable by those two remarkable peaks in the West Indies and Australia, but there was also one desperate trough, the Pakistan spot-fixing scandal that erupted during the fourth Test at Lord's and entirely dominated the final month of the English season. And yet even that, in hindsight, was a trauma worth enduring for England, for it forced the squad to bind together like never before, and to keep their heads while all around them were losing theirs. When the subsequent ODI series was sealed in the final match at the Rose Bowl in September, their righteous jubilation was as intense as any Ashes celebration.

Perhaps more than anything, this is a team that is worldly-wise, for it incorporates a range of players who have experienced some of the best and worst feelings imaginable on a cricket field. Four of the top six felt the matchless euphoria of 2005; six of the current XI were lampooned during the 5-0 whitewash. Graeme Swann thought his career was over before he was handed his shot at redemption; Matt Prior had to reinvent his game after his glovework was ridiculed in his debut season. And overseeing it all is a coach in Flower who possessed the drive as a player to become the No. 1 batsman in the world, even though his country, Zimbabwe, could never countenance such heights. England, on the other hand, certainly can think that big.

New kid on the block
He may have faded in the latter half of the Ashes, with Chris Tremlett finishing the year as the first-choice beanpole in England's seam attack, but Steven Finn shouldered the expectations that were thrown his way. At the age of 21, with more meat to be added to his bones in due course, he has a very bright future indeed. His debut in Bangladesh came in something of a blur - one minute he was lolling on his sofa in London, the next he was in Chittagong preparing to take the place of the injured Graham Onions - but having acquitted himself admirably on the flattest decks in the world game, he reaped his rewards in a prolific home summer. Six wickets on his Ashes debut were further evidence of his calibre, and while his inexperience caused him to leak runs, he still maintained a happy knack of making timely breakthroughs.

Fading stars
Paul Collingwood's last hurrah in Test cricket may have come at the SCG, but a man of his durability will not be finished in all forms just yet - certainly not while there's still the prospect of defending his World Twenty20 crown in Sri Lanka 2012.

One man who has gone for good, however, is Ryan Sidebottom - a bowler who singlehandedly carried the attack during the dog days of 2007-08, and whose body in the end succumbed to those exertions. Nevertheless, he bowed out in glory with an integral role in the Caribbean. Having believed for most of the decade that one Test cap would be the sum of his international achievements, he truly surpassed every one of his expectations.

High point
A maiden global trophy was a nice trinket to bring back to the Lord's display cabinet, but given the context and the age-old rivalry, nothing could match the delirious satisfaction of putting Australia on the canvas in an extraordinary start to the Boxing Day Test at the MCG. On England's previous visit four years earlier, the Ashes had already been lost and the match scarcely limped into a third day, but as had also been the case in Adelaide, history swiftly proved to be bunk. Ninety-eight all out by tea, and England 157 for 0 at the close. Remarkable.

Low point
They always say it's darkest before the dawn, and so it proved back in January, when England's precious 1-0 lead over South Africa was snatched away at altitude by Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel. The Wanderers' spring-loaded wicket proved unplayable for a succession of batsmen who had already checked in their mental luggage in anticipation of their first prolonged break since the start of the Ashes in July 2009. It was a result that seemed to have undermined all the progress that had been made in the previous 12 months, but hindsight shows it to have been a vital reality check. The knowledge that they are not the finished article has kept this England squad hungry for improvement.

What 2011 holds
Unlike England's last groundbreaking Ashes success in 2005, there is no sense that the journey has already been completed - far from it. The celebrations after the Melbourne Test were raucous but contained, and the talk the morning after instantly moved onto a raft of fast-approaching assignments. The Sydney Test is the first objective, of course, but the World Cup and an epic home series against the No. 1 Test nation, India, are just around the corner. Under Flower and Strauss, England crave the status of top dogs. And with a young, ambitious and well-rounded squad at their disposal, they are better placed than any previous England team to make it a reality.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on January 8, 2011, 1:33 GMT

    Also do not talk about Aussie domination pre-2002.. Many countries' captains have taken their team out of the field for poor umpiring.. Not that all the countries had non biased umpires, but Australia always had the game set up.. Some of the decisions were just atrocious.. Remember Sachin being given Shoulder before wicket??

  • Dummy4 on January 7, 2011, 19:03 GMT

    Yes Arjun, very valid points. Australia were there for the taking after Sydney 2008. That match exposed them brutally. I guess when people say that the Aussie domination has ended I guess they mean that even teams like England have beat them on their home soil. While I agree that England have played well, the talks about them being no 1 is way too premature.

  • Dummy4 on January 7, 2011, 19:03 GMT

    @MartinAmber o yeah, I remember the halycon days of BBC showing highlights of Ashes cricket (from Australia) at Midnight the day after the days play, lots of kids could watch at that time.

  • Dummy4 on January 7, 2011, 11:09 GMT

    Never ever bring in India in comparison with this English team.. The English team has, no doubt put in mammoth performances over the past year, but India too has put in such efforts over a period of two and a half years.. India has not lost a test series in over two and a half years, the last being the one in Sri Lanka in 2008.. Also India is the only team to have challenged the might of the Australians in their heyday.. In the past decade, India has lost only two of their home series, while England has lost against the Aussies, Saffers and the Indians.. Also they have not won a series against India, home or away since 1996 (Ganguly and Dravid debut series).. On the other hand, India has won thrice and drawn twice against them.. These statistics make India the obviously better team..

  • Simon on January 7, 2011, 8:45 GMT

    Damn England and their Ashes winningness. Ha ha. Really, England played really well this year. What was good to see was Anderson beoming more mature as a bowler, its been a long time coming, but he always had the potential. The depth of English bowling was impressive too. Hard to think someone like Panesar cant get a game anymore! As for England becoming number one, I'm not sure. If they continue to play well they certainly could, but their middle order looks frail if Strauss and Cook don't fire. I would say they are on par with Sth Africa, for Sth Africa have a good bowling attack but lack batting depth. But if England play well they could rule the world. At least until Australia get better.

  • Dummy4 on January 7, 2011, 2:45 GMT

    @Thomas, thats exactly the kind of attitude due to which India is no 1 and not the other teams like England or SA. To be no 1, one needs to put such performances day in and day out and against strong opposition. In 2010, England played 1 test against a strong opposition and lost by an innings!! Lets see if they put up a fight against India, that'll be a good start to their ascent. It'll take time though :-)

  • Arron on January 7, 2011, 1:53 GMT

    A very large part of why their achievements have not, and will not, resonate with the public in the same way as those of Vaughan's side, is the absence of live Test cricket from free-to-air TV. It'll take several years before the consequences of this hare-brained short-termism are truly felt.

  • Dummy4 on January 6, 2011, 14:06 GMT

    England have had a fantastic 2010. Actually I'll go one better and say that during 2010 England were the best side in the world. The world rankings will say otherwise but they've been on a meteoric rise since coming back from South Africa. Sure they didn't win the Test series but they didn't lose a series either. They went to the T20 World Cup and blew everyone out of the water after a shaky start, and since the T20 World Cup they've won every series in 2010 and retained the Ashes after 24 long years. England have a real chance at the ODI World Cup, but they need to prove they can play in the sub-continent. For this year, Sri Lanka and India are going to have very tough tours. Collingwood's departure will mean England are effectively a bowler light but once Broad is fit again whose to say England won't have three bowlers over 6'7 in height? Strength in depth is the key and England have that in abundance.

  • Mark on January 6, 2011, 14:04 GMT

    Yes I agree with Andrew Miller. This is England's best year in international cricket since 1987. The team in 1987 also beat australia down under and narrowly lost the world cup final to australia. All the more remarkable given that they don't show cricket on free to air anymore in England. So only the cricket die hards watch the game on sky. As well as they play a lot less cricket in schools in England these days. Just goes to show as long as they have a good cricket system in place which I think the county system is then all is well. Lets not forget that the current 2010 England team grew up watching and playing in the 1990s when England had less success in international cricket. But in the 1990s they still had a good system in place, which spotted all these talented cricketers coming through.

  • Dummy4 on January 6, 2011, 11:44 GMT

    @Gizza. That happened in 2009, not 2010!

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