December 28, 2011

Hold the accolades, please

Sure, England had a great year but their true test will be how long they can sustain their world-beating ways

As cricket's worldbeaters of yesteryear would readily attest, the challenge of being the best is as much about one's inner drive as anything else. When West Indies and Australia ruled the roost for decades at a time, their endless strings of victories eventually came to feel commonplace, and yet the more the results racked up, so too did the expectations associated with them. One slip - be it against England at Sabina Park in 1989-90, or Bangladesh at Sophia Gardens in 2005 - and prophecies of doom would swiftly follow.

With that in mind, England's performances in 2011 - glorious though many of them were - will be better judged two or three years down the line, once the euphoria of their ascent to No. 1 in the world Test rankings has been put into context by their ability (or otherwise) to sustain the same levels of desire that got them there in the first place.

Taken in isolation, England have rarely - if ever - been quite so formidable in the longest form of the game. They boast an established raft of batsmen with an extraordinary collective repertoire, from the insatiable crease occupation of Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott, to the exquisite strokeplay of the newly mature Ian Bell, and on through the explosive capabilities that Kevin Pietersen, Eoin Morgan and Matt Prior all possess in abundance.

Further down the order, Tim Bresnan, Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad have the ability to produce match-turning innings, as each man proved during the fraught early stages against India, and that's before you even factor in the devastating potential of England's bowling outfit. James Anderson was peerless during the Ashes and unplayable at key moments against India, while two of England's outstanding performers of the year found themselves on the fringes of selection for one reason or another - Chris Tremlett in the Tests against Sri Lanka and Steven Finn on the one-day tour of India.

As a consequence, the statistics of England's Test year were stunning. They added a further four double-centuries to the three that they managed in 2010, and in so doing eclipsed Len Hutton's 1938 Ashes summer as England's most prolific year for "daddy hundreds" ever. On the back of such domineering performances, they racked up a further four innings victories in eight Tests, to take their recent tally to nine by an innings since December 2009.

Had it not been for some foul weather during the Sri Lanka series in May and June, England might have expected to extend that record even further, although their most remarkable victory of the year was achieved in spite of the elements. In an incredible final-day heist in Cardiff, England overcame the apathy of the Welsh public, 938 of whom bothered to show up at the ground, and bowled Sri Lanka out for 82 in 24.4 overs to snatch a result from the dampest of draws.

"Sometimes you have to create your own intensity," said Andrew Strauss, in arguably the most succinct explanation for England's current Test form. Their desire to scale the heights proved irresistible to each of their opponents, even in situations of apparent weakness such as existed against India in the pivotal second Test at Trent Bridge. On that occasion it was Broad who stepped up with his defining performance - a gutsy half-century, a six-wicket haul including a hat-trick, and a Saturday evening session that will never be forgotten by any of the thousands of fans who thronged to watch the tussle for top spot hot up.

Despite all that, 2011 was not a year that will be recorded with absolute fondness by England. Their performances since 2009 had been impressive in all three forms of the game - steady improvement in Test cricket, notable successes over 50 overs, and of course the World Twenty20 triumph in 2010 - but in a year of upheaval on the limited-overs front, they suffered three substantial embarrassments, one of which came at the World Cup, no less.

There are mitigating factors for each of the setbacks - their 6-1 drubbing by Australia came in the immediate wake of the Ashes, which in turn left the squad on their chinstraps ahead of a gruelling two-month World Cup campaign. To allow the team just three nights at home between those tours was a travesty, and one that will not be repeated now that the next Ashes trip has been brought forward to 2013-14. But if England truly aspire to be the dominant team of the coming decade, which is clearly the aim, they will need to find ways to forge results in adverse circumstances, such as a post-season series against a chastened India team.

England's target for 2012 ought to be five series wins. Like for Glenn McGrath with his 5-0 predictions of old, any less of an ambition would be a suggestion of weakness

Right at this moment, England arguably have more to prove than at any other stage in their post-2009 renaissance. An unfair assessment? Maybe, but then again, when Michael Vaughan's men got within spitting distance of the No. 1 ranking in the summer of 2005, their credentials were demolished in the subsequent 18 months. All the signs would suggest that England are better prepared to cope with the heightened expectations this time around - their squad is far deeper for starters - and yet, on the occasions when they allowed their standards to slip, that old adage about team spirit being an illusion glimpsed in victory rang disturbingly true.

On the flip side, England did have a number of reasons to feel encouraged about their all-round development. Cook, the new one-day captain, was derided as a "plodder" by Michael Atherton but responded with a remarkable string of performances, including 80 not out from 63 balls in a 23-over run-chase against India at the Rose Bowl. A host of big-hitting young batsmen were given their first taste of international cricket, with a particular view to the World Twenty20 defence in September 2012, and while there were plenty of calamities along the way, the achievement of beating both the World Cup finalists, India and Sri Lanka, albeit on home soil, was not to be sniffed at.

Either way, the true test of England's mettle is lurking around the corner. Kevin Pietersen returned to Test form after a troubling 18 months with a bombastic brace of hundreds at Lord's and The Oval, but his one-day appetite remains in some doubt. And then there's the thorny issue of the Test captain, Strauss, whose last hundred in that format came in Brisbane back in November 2010. He added another century of huge significance in the tied World Cup game against India in February, but could not replicate those levels of intensity in England's home summer.

With just one form of the game keeping Strauss occupied these days, he has been in mothballs since August - which on the one hand represents a welcome break for a player who has given so much to the cause for so long. Nevertheless, his personal drive has been one of the defining features of England's surge in fortunes since 2009. He turns 35 in March, and will need to prove swiftly that his achievements of the past two years have not left him sated.

New kid on the block
Though he went on to endure a tough tour of India, the most eye-catching debut of England's year was that of Jonny Bairstow in the fifth ODI against India in Cardiff. At the age of 21, and with an asking rate of nine an over to overcome, he proved that even born-and-bred Englishmen can clear the ropes on demand, with a thrilling 41 not out from 21 balls.

The year's big revelation, however, was arguably Tim Bresnan, even though he hardly qualifies as a newcomer after five years in and around the international set-up. After returning to Test cricket with a bang in Melbourne in the final week of 2010, he moved himself effortlessly up the pecking order in 2011. His all-round display against India at Trent Bridge was so irresistible that the injured Chris Tremlett was barely mentioned for the rest of the summer. Come the flat decks of the Emirates in January, Bresnan's stamina is sure to be in high demand.

Fading star
Paul Collingwood's demise was swift and unbecoming of a player who had been so self-sacrificing throughout a decade of international involvement. However, it quickly transpired that his Test retirement, which he announced midway through the Sydney Test in January, would not be enough to prolong the rest of his international career. At times during his stop-start World Cup campaign, it seemed he was being selected primarily for his offcutters, and when England unveiled their three-captain strategy at Lord's in May, the fact he was overlooked for the Twenty20 role in favour of Broad barely caused a ripple of dissent. At Test level his departure, like that of Nasser Hussain in 2004, was poignant but well timed, with England ready to take their batting to a more purposeful level.

High point
In terms of personal satisfaction, it was tough for England's players to top the events on the final day of the Ashes in January. However, their most complete performance came at Edgbaston in August, when Alastair Cook's 294 formed the bedrock of their total of 710 for 7 declared, England's highest innings score since 1938. That was the contest that sealed an unassailable 3-0 series lead, and so guaranteed that they would finish the series as the world's No.1 Test side. That they went on to complete the whitewash at The Oval was a bonus.

Low point
Losing to Ireland and Bangladesh in the World Cup was embarrassing, although in mitigation, England's frantic scramble into the quarter-finals at least provided a compelling storyline to what would otherwise have been an interminable first month of the tournament. It was England's later visit to the subcontinent, in October, that was the true nadir of the year. On the one hand, the tour could be written off as an end-of-season irrelevance, especially seeing as England had just won 3-0 against India in their home ODIs. On the other, they knew full well that a chastened opposition would be gunning for revenge. Naive batting gave way to slipshod fielding, and with the likes of MS Dhoni and Suresh Raina primed to capitalise, England never gave themselves a prayer.

What 2012 holds
England played just eight Tests in 2011 - their lightest workload in that format for more than a decade. However, 2012 promises a reversion to type, with 15 Tests in the pipeline against five different opponents. It will be the year that determines England's right to be considered the No. 1 team in that format, with trips to UAE, Sri Lanka and India bookending the year, and a seismic (though scandalously curtailed) three-Test series against South Africa providing the summer highlight. Their target at this stage has to be five series wins. Like for Glenn McGrath with his 5-0 predictions of old, any less of an ambition would be a suggestion of weakness.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on December 30, 2011, 0:38 GMT

    Thanks for some perspective Andrew. England are (at least in tests) a very good side, but they are not (yet) a great one. The two great sides I watched (West Indies 1976-90 and Australia 1995-2007) had an abundance of great players. I'm not sure Engand have the players to strike fear into the opposition (think Richards, Marshall,, Garner, Holding, Warne, McGrath, Ponting, Waugh). Looking forward to the Pakistan series, and I think it will give England a real test.

  • Saim on December 29, 2011, 20:01 GMT

    Against Pakistan im expecting a 1-1 draw, hard to see either team winning

  • Alan on December 29, 2011, 12:56 GMT

    @ dunger.bob: I agree with you that England's recent success does not bear any comparison to the success of West Indies c.1980-1995 and Australia c.1995-2007, and that some people have greatly exaggerated the achievements of the England team. Be careful yourself however of avoiding exageration of past teams' success. 1. "England hardly won a test, let alone a series against Australia for 16 years. 16 years." In fact in the 16 years you are talking about (1989-2005), England won 7 tests against Australia, more than most teams at that time (though admittedly they played Aus more). 2. "the Windies had simply laid waste to everything that they saw for 20 years or so." In fact West Indies remained unbeaten in test series for 15 years (between defeats by NZ in 1980 and Aus in 1995), but as Pakistan fans will tell you, they didn't simply lay waste to everything within those 15 years: in fact they usually struggled to record a series victory against Pakistan when Imran Khan was captain

  • stuart on December 29, 2011, 11:02 GMT

    The distance between our test results and our ODI form. We are the flip side of Indis really. We could not really give a damn for ODi and India are besotted with it. Lets stick with test cricket as that is what we seem to care about.20-20 is a luagh but not real cricket.

  • Dummy4 on December 29, 2011, 10:08 GMT

    er.Vaibhav we have never said we are the best at ODI - lets face it the way forward in the world is Tests being the pinnacle and T20. ODI is a dying format and i doubt whether it will be around for much longer- so that means by my reckoning that we (england 0 are ranked 1 on tests and World T20 champions - talk about clutching at straws lol

  • Dummy4 on December 29, 2011, 9:57 GMT

    Fourandsixes Australia are everybodys whipping boy? oh i was sure that they just won against the former number 1 side, oh wait they did !!! listen mate, England have beaten everybody putin front of them recently, and i dont get how you are so confident of this Pakistan team that was only recently hammered by England. How about this aswell Ste13 i believe that if you check the Test rankings Swann is still the best spin bowler- it makes me laugh how so many people come on here giving it all that about there own teams when they dont check facts first, it just goes to show how blinded by their own teams people are. And look i can say this confidently because I have followed England through thick and thin, i have seem them at their worst and now they have proved to be the best in the World- Come on Enlgland for a great 2012!!

  • Harsh on December 29, 2011, 9:08 GMT

    I wish England all the best.At present England is the only outstanding team in the world in test match Cricket.Arguably this is the best English team in 40 years whose recent performances compare with the authority with which top Australian and West Indian teams vanquished their opposition into submission.England has the most balanced of batting line ups wi8th Strauss,Cook,Bell Pieterson Trott etc and a balanced bowling attack with Swan,Anderson Bresman etc.,in addition to a fine allrounder in Broad.

    Let us hope this team can transform from just very good team to one of the all-time great teams.

  • Shanmugam on December 29, 2011, 2:53 GMT

    @er.Vaibhav, some team has to be the best of the current lot. They may not necessarily be a good team but some team *has* to be the best of all the teams out there. With your infinite wisdom, you have ruled out England because they lost a ODI series 0-5 even though we are talking about the best *test* team. Still, let's have it your way. England is not the best. Best teams don't lose a 4 test series 0-4 either, excuses notwithstanding. That rules out India too. SA, perhaps? They were unable to defeat a weak OZ side at home and are struggling against a mediocre SL team. So, they are out. SL lost to England and Pakistan and lost the first test by a huge margin to SA. Pakistan lost 1-3 to England just last summer but they have managed to stay undefeated in a test series all year this year. Perhaps, they are the best team then? How about NZ?

  • Shankar on December 29, 2011, 1:24 GMT

    England's real worth will be determined after they tour SL & India, where they have successfully avoided playing Tests for more than 3 years. They have a good team for pace friendly pitches and avoiding playing in India & SL for such a long period has helped them retain a high winning percentage and ranking. Until England has a successful subcontinent tour (which Aus did so frequently in their heydays), they are just a home bully (home as defined by fast pacy pitches, not ground in England).

  • rob on December 29, 2011, 0:08 GMT

    jg, I'm sorry to keep banging on about this, but it really does annoy me and I have to get it off my chest.

    A lot can happen to a team over time. Lets look at a five year stretch. The most obvious thing is that your players are 5 years older, but apart from that you have to consider the impact of things like injury and loss of form. I'm not wishing it on you but how would things look if Jimmy Anderson and Ian Bell were both injured and Alistair Cook had an inexplicable loss of form and suddenly became a Phil Hughes class walking wicket ? You will have to cope with that at some stage. Maybe you can. If so, great, you're still on track. If not, then, well good try but no cigar.

    I'm done, got no more to say. Hope there is at least one Englishman who can see where I'm coming from with this.

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