December 26, 2012

Golden but not always

England had a year of notable highs, balanced by a fair few lows

Two thousand and twelve brought a reality check for England. The year started with talk of legacy and ended with an historic victory. But in between England discovered how much they have to learn and how far they have to travel before they can fulfil the prophecies many of us made for them at the end of 2011.

No year that ends with seven Test losses, two series defeats, a failure to defend a global title and a fall in Test ranking can be deemed a success. The tarnished retirement of a fine man and respected captain in the moment they lost the No.1 Test ranking was a sad ending to what had been a rather wonderful chapter in England's history.

But the year also brought notable achievements. England won a Test series in India for the first time since 1984-85, they won an English record ten ODIs in a row, they were unbeaten in all four ODI series in which they participated, and they rose to the top of the ODI rankings. Most of all, they also saw the emergence of an admirable new leader in Alastair Cook.

More importantly England demonstrated a preparedness to "start again at their beginnings", as Kipling put it. They showed they can learn from their mistakes. They showed the willingness to acknowledge their flaws and the desire to eradicate them. It was a year not just of endings but of new beginnings; it may yet prove to be the making of this England side.

It started in the UAE. History may recall that England went into the Test series complacent and underprepared, having achieved their goals the previous year. But that version of history would be a disservice to a fine Pakistan side that included a genius spinner in Saeed Ajmal and a determined captain in Misbah-ul-Haq. England can learn plenty from the way Pakistan renewed themselves after the trough of 2010. England's bowlers performed valiantly in the UAE but were undermined by their batsmen's frailties against fine spin bowling. It was an abrupt wake-up call.

There was some attempt at mitigation. England, some claimed, were not weak against spin. They were just weak against high-quality mystery spin in alien conditions. But it was a version of events that ignored the fact that Abdur Rehman, who was almost as effective as Ajmal in the UAE, was very much a conventional, if quick, left-arm spinner.

Besides, such explanations were quickly brushed aside in Sri Lanka. England were spun out by Rangana Herath, an orthodox left-arm spinner, in Galle, to enforce the view that England's batsmen had technical and mental issues with spin bowling. Defeat in the UAE could no longer be dismissed as an aberration.

Perhaps that acknowledgement marked the start of England's recovery. In the second innings of that game, Jonathan Trott scored England's first century of the year, and in doing so, demonstrated a method that could prove successful. England subsequently squared the series in Colombo, with Kevin Pietersen playing the first of several great Test innings in the year.

It says much for the changing fortunes of the two sides that England's victory against West Indies was taken for granted. Certainly a West Indies side diluted by internecine squabbles and IPL commitments never seriously threatened to shock England.

The series against South Africa, billed as an unofficial world Test championship final, proved far tougher. South Africa's batting proved too strong and their seamers outbowled England's. England handed over the No.1 ranking after less than a year in possession.

The nagging doubt remains that England failed to do themselves justice in the series. Had catches been held and had England's batsmen not collapsed on a blameless Oval pitch, the series might even have been stolen. England actually entered the final session of the final two Tests with victory still a possibility, particularly after a wonderful innings from Pietersen in Leeds. Few would dispute, however, that South Africa looked the better side. They deserved their victory.

The final Test was played without Pietersen after allegations emerged that suggested his behaviour was not conducive to a productive team environment. Whatever the contents of messages he sent to members of the South Africa squad, however he treated new team-mates, whatever his motivation for claiming he wanted to retire from ODI cricket, and whatever he said about his captain, Andrew Strauss, there is no doubt a divide had grown between Pietersen and the rest of the England team. His absence was mourned more by spectators than team-mates.

In the midst of all that, England showed improved ODI form by whitewashing Pakistan, West Indies and Australia in series, before drawing with South Africa. It took England to the top of the ODI rankings; a significant marker en route to fulfilling a key ambition: a global ODI trophy.

Apart from the Pakistan series, those victories were achieved without Pietersen. He announced his retirement from ODI cricket in May, and in line with ECB policy that is designed to protect their ODI ambitions, was subsequently considered retired from all limited-overs international cricket. A successful recall for Ian Bell compensated for Pietersen's loss, while Cook continued his improvement in the format.

Without Pietersen, however, England never threatened to defend their World Twenty20 title. Pietersen was man of the tournament when England won in 2010, and in his absence they lacked the firepower to progress. The team and the individual suffered for his exile.

The issue was resolved before the tour of India. Pietersen apologised, to Strauss in particular, and made himself available in all formats. While the batting of Cook was more relevant to England's success in India, Pietersen also contributed a brilliant century in Mumbai that helped turn the tide of the series.

His return symbolised the renewed spirit of England. When they lost the first Test, in Ahmedabad, all the doubts about their ability to combat spin bowling and Asian conditions came flooding back. They looked doomed. But they demonstrated their improvement over the next three Tests. Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar outperformed the Indian spinners, Cook batted magnificently, and James Anderson was by far the most effective seamer on either side. It ensured a positive ending to a difficult year and allowed England to look to the future with justifiable confidence: a good but not great side with room for improvement.

New kid on the block
Having not given a Test debut to anyone throughout 2011, England used five new players in 2012. Tellingly, all were batsmen: Samit Patel, Jonny Bairstow, James Taylor, Nick Compton and Joe Root. It has proved harder than imagined to find a replacement for Paul Collingwood. Eoin Morgan and Ravi Bopara, the men given first opportunity, failed to take their chance.

But the not-so-new kids on the block are Ashley Giles and Cook. Giles' appointment as England's limited-overs coach marks an end to Andy Flower's day-to-day involvement with the one-day side. Relatively recently retired as a player, Giles enjoyed a successful spell as director of cricket at Warwickshire and takes charge of a side rated No. 1 in ODI cricket and with realistic chances of winning the Champions Trophy. His timing may prove impeccable.

The appointment of Cook is even more significant. Taking the job with England beaten at home and the team divided, Cook insisted a solution was found to the Pietersen problem. He then instilled a determination, a positivity, and an intolerance of excuses, that served his side well in India. He has started brilliantly.

Fading star
There are a few options here: Bopara lost focus as personal issues clouded his mind. Tim Bresnan, a shadow of the bowler he had been before elbow surgery in December 2011, laboured throughout the year and finished with a Test bowling average of 55.43. Stuart Broad, too, seemed to lose pace, and having been appointed vice-captain at the start of the India tour, was dropped after two Tests.

But the retirement of Strauss marked the end of an era. Strauss had been a declining force as a player for some time and, despite centuries against West Indies, accepted after the South Africa series that it was time to go. He departed assured of the affection and respect of team-mates and supporters for a job well done. Under him, England reached heights they had not for many years. And, whichever of the two impostors he was confronted with, he treated them just the same: with affable, calm, constructive good humour. It was sad that the Pietersen saga deflected attention from his departure.

High point
After all the disappointments and fallouts, England found redemption in India. Written off after a thumping defeat in the first Test, most expected England to struggle against familiar weaknesses: spin bowling and Asian conditions. Instead they fought back admirably, showing they had learned the lessons from earlier failures. They were the first side from any country to win a series in India since 2004, and only the second side from any nation in history - after that 1984-85 England side - to come from behind to beat India in India. While victory did not negate the earlier struggles, it did suggest England were back on track.

Low point
From the moment Pietersen retired from ODI cricket, speculation about his future was never far from the headlines. If he made some valid points about England's unrelenting schedule, they were rendered disingenuous by subsequent revelations over his IPL and Big Bash intentions.

It was sad that, in the light of Pietersen's "it's not easy being me" press conference in Leeds, the England dressing room was exposed as divided; it was sad that Strauss' farewell was tarnished; and it was sad that England should be denied arguably their greatest batsman of the modern age when defending the World Twenty20 trophy. There were, no doubt, faults on all sides - including the media - but Pietersen has to take a fair share of responsibility for one of the dullest, most egotistical episodes in modern English cricket.

What 2013 holds
Despite the setbacks of 2012, this remains a golden age for England cricket. Anyone who grew up in the 1980s and '90s will have become used to a grindingly mediocre England side that once slipped to the lower reaches of the Test rankings and was knocked out of the World Cup England hosted before the theme tune was released. The fact they can look to the future with realistic optimism shows how far they have come.

The coming year could be momentous. Hosting the Champions Trophy provides a great opportunity to win a global event in the format. With Pietersen back and England with the attack and experience of conditions to exploit the use of two new balls, they may never have a better chance.

For many 2013 will be defined by the back-to-back Ashes series. Expectations are arguably as high as they have ever been, though the emergence of a strong Australian pace attack could dampen spirits. But with Cook and Andy Flower at the helm, Pietersen back in the fold and Anderson, Prior, Trott and Swann all just about at the peak of their powers, England remain in good hands.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo