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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on December 29, 2012, 5:27 GMT

    Pakistanis are unpredictable, though they're slightly better than India (despite no big names). The real worry for me when England didn't manage to control SA. After hammering Australia (0-5) in Ashes, I was looking forward a good contest in England vs SA. In the end, Amla was just too much for them. Winning in India was a huge effort, specially after the loss of first test match. After their performance in Asia (Loss, Draw in Sri Lanka, Won in India), I am satisfied as they did learn from the mistakes and didn't repeat them in India.

  • Shanmugam on December 28, 2012, 16:44 GMT

    @Phat-Boy, agree with everything you right except the "world's best swing bowler" part. I am sure you are referring to Philander but how is he the world's best swing bowler. He has been there for, what, one year now and has not played a single test in the sub-continent. How come he is the best when he is still unproven in all conditions. And Australia is among the hardest places to tour for Philander kind of bowlers. And, it was no surprise that he went for plenty in the first test. He should thank his lucky stars that he missed the second test; otherwise, that bowling average would only have went up more. He was lucky to play the third test in more favorable bowling conditions. Philander is very good, no doubt, but till he proves himself in all conditions, he cannot be considered the best. Our Indian friends say that Anderson is still not good enough even though he has performed in all parts of the world.

  • j on December 28, 2012, 9:38 GMT

    @Phat-Boy, You'll notice RandyOz has a habit of going silent whenever floored by the facts. Expect another few months off for him then. Great Post, he probably still thinks Warne plays for them, then one day he wakes up and realizes all they've got is Lyon! LOL

  • Jed on December 28, 2012, 0:39 GMT

    England have had a good year but probably still don't do it as No.1 for me. It's good to see them blood some young cricketers but as the low point in the article pointed out some of the stars are fading, not just the veterans but players i'd thought would power through these next 5-10 years. I'd would have liked to see how the England test squad of today would have gone against India several years ago in the sub-continent; would have been great to see their bowlers against the likes of Dravid, Laxman, Sehwag and Tendulkar while in form and their batsmen against Kumble and Singh.

  • Shanmugam on December 27, 2012, 23:58 GMT

    @jimmy2s, none of those WI bowlers are anywhere as good as Finn. Finn would walk into any test XI except the Saffers.

  • Shanmugam on December 27, 2012, 23:56 GMT

    @RandyOZ, remind me, what was the series result last time when England and Australia clashed both in England and Australia.

    Australia have lost 2 home series the last time they played all opponents. England have lost 1 home series and won everything else. England have just completed a successful tour of India - a country where it is hard to get test wins leave alone series wins. Let's see how many tests Australia won there; or rather, how many they don't lose.

  • ian on December 27, 2012, 23:34 GMT

    Despite the roller-coaster year in Test results, England finish it in a clear 2nd postion, behind SA, with Australia at about the same interval as that between Eng & SA, in third. Pakistan, as ever the maverick nation, is back in 4th. India, sinking fast, holds 5th. At a distance SL head the rest. Although those cricket-crazy countries of the sub-continent don't want to hear or much acknowledge this, the old order has re-established itself. Alll countries want to do well in all forms of the sport yet those that have set out to prioritise the shorter forms over TC (India, WI, SL & Bangladesh) have had patchy success, the WI win over SL in the T20 WC being the sole shining exception. On the other hand, the 3 old order nations have performed well in all formats. Conclusion? True professionalism produces teams that acquit themselves well in ODI & T20, despite holding TC in the highest regard. Therefore,'top down' works best. And the major underperformers across the board? Wealthy India!

  • Sam` on December 27, 2012, 22:47 GMT

    @RandyOz, wake up and smell the overt patriotism. Got unlucky in the last test? Losing by 300 runs and being felled for 150 in the first innings isn't what I'd call 'bad luck.' Being unable to dismiss a team who's best batsman was on one leg despite having them 4-60 isn't 'bad luck.' Having a day of cricket washed out when the opposition has sauntered to 2-240 isn't 'bad luck.' Australia pushed South Africa to the brink but ultimately weren't good enough, despite Kallis playing two tests as a batsman who could barely run, having the world's best swing bowler sit out the second match, and having a specialist batsman and their only spin option injure himself out of the Brisbane match without seeing a ball.

  • I on December 27, 2012, 21:27 GMT

    I'd take a Roach, a Russell, a Rampaul or any other bowler who can send down a delivery without ramming into the stumps at the non-striker's end every time

  • richard on December 27, 2012, 20:52 GMT

    It sure was a golden year for me, I bought a boat with my winnings Eng v Pak i bought a jet ski with my winnings Eng v SA, I bought a Merc with a bet that Eng would lose another captain to South Africa, I went on a cruise with my winnings that England being number 1 in all 3 formats would last no longer than 3 weeks ,oh yeah WHAT A YEAR.