England December 30, 2016

Well begun is half-done

England's bid for the No. 1 Test ranking failed after the second half of their year was spent sliding to defeat in challenging conditions

Ben Stokes kicked off England's 2016 with the second-fastest double-century in Tests © AFP

At the start of August it seemed England were midway through an excellent year. They had overachieved in coming within an ace - or a barrage of sixes, as it transpired - of winning the World T20; they had won a Test series in South Africa; and they were a result or two away from returning to No. 1 in the Test rankings.

It proved to be the high-water mark. They lost the final Test against Pakistan, to be held to a 2-2 draw in the series, and then lost five of the seven they played in Bangladesh and India. They finish the year at a far more modest No. 5 in the Test rankings, having won six, lost eight and drawn three Tests, and with their captain considering his future. Suddenly, they do not seem to be so much at the start of a new age as in the middle of another transition.

Perhaps the manner and severity of the defeats in Asia exaggerated England's problems. Certainly they encountered demanding conditions against a much-improved Bangladesh and an outstanding team in India. But some of the collapses were pretty eye-catching - losing all ten wickets in a session in Dhaka stands out - while the experience also shone a light on the paucity of England's spin-bowling options. For a side with aspirations to be rated the best in the world, it was a chastening experience.

It didn't negate everything that had gone before, though. They sustained their limited-overs progress - perhaps most notably in the World T20, but also managing what few others teams can these days by winning in Bangladesh - and played some brilliant if inconsistent Test cricket. James Anderson harnessed helpful conditions expertly as Sri Lanka were beaten at the start of the English summer, and once Pakistan took an early lead after an outstanding performance at Lord's, England produced two strong displays, at Old Trafford and Edgbaston, to take a lead in the series. A Younis Khan masterclass - and oddly lame England performance - at The Oval saw the series drawn and Pakistan, rather than England, attain the No. 1 spot.

Still, England appeared to be progressing. Chris Woakes had enjoyed an outstanding season and appeared to be established as third seamer, while Joe Root made a double-century in his new position of No. 3.

In the ODIs at the end of the summer, Mark Wood's pace provided England with a cutting edge. Alex Hales and Jason Roy have settled as one of the more dangerous opening pairs in white-ball cricket. As a remarkable tie against Sri Lanka at Trent Bridge illustrated, England had the depth to be able to rescue almost any situation.

There were positives even towards the end, though. The emergence of Haseeb Hameed and, to a lesser extent, Keaton Jennings, offered some solidity at the top of the order, while Ben Stokes (who made the crucial difference in the nervy Test victory in Chittagong) demonstrated a vastly improved technique against spin bowling and improved control to complement his pace and skill with the ball. Adil Rashid set a record for the most wickets in a series by an England legspinner in India, while Stuart Broad bowled with great heart and skill. It wasn't all bad by any means.

Jonny Bairstow had a prolific year, setting the record for most runs by a wicketkeeper in a calendar year © AFP

High point
The opening weeks of January produced three of the most memorable performances of England's year. First, in Cape Town, Stokes played what may well turn out to be the innings of his life. Coming to the crease with Kagiso Rabada on a hat-trick, Stokes thrashed 11 sixes and took 163 balls to reach the second-fastest double-century in Test history. He made 130 of those runs in the morning session of the second day - a record for a batsman in the first session of a Test day - and put on a world-record 399 for the sixth-wicket with Jonny Bairstow. It was brilliant, brutal batting.

Bairstow's contribution was just as significant in the long term. It was his first Test century and opened the floodgates for an outstanding 2016, in which he set a new record for Test runs in a calendar year by a wicketkeeper and fell just short of Michael Vaughan's record for the most Test runs in a year by an England player.

In the Test after that one, in Johannesburg, Stuart Broad produced one of the greatest performances of his career. Generating pace and movement, he claimed 6 for 17 in South Africa's second innings - including a spell of 5 for 1, where the one run came from a dropped catch - to secure an away series victory against the top-ranked Test team. It took Broad past Bob Willis' Test wicket tally and was the seventh time in his Test career he had taken five or more wickets in a single spell. South Africa's total of 83 was their lowest at home since readmission into Test cricket.

The year didn't quite live up to those early experiences, but in those heady weeks England looked quite a team.

England remain an incomplete Test side without a world-class spin bowler in their XI © AFP

Low point
Warming up ahead of the second day of Nottinghamshire's match against Cambridge MCCU at Fenner's on April 6, James Taylor started to feel unwell. Despite a reputation as one of the fittest men in English cricket, the warm-ups left him sweating profusely and with an elevated and uneven heart rate. After being given oxygen in the dressing room, he was given a lift back to Nottingham, where the plan was for him to see a doctor. His condition deteriorated quickly. Realising that he had forgotten his house and car keys, Taylor lay down on the floor of the Trent Bridge pavilion, and but for the arrival of his mother, the intervention of his fiancée, and the enduring excellence of the NHS, he might well have died in the following hours.

That tragedy was averted, but in the following days it became clear Taylor's career as a professional sportsman was over. He was diagnosed with arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy and told that the condition usually became apparent in post-mortem. While it would not quite be true to say he had cemented a place in the England sides, he was highly likely to have started the summer in the Test side, and having captained the ODI team and scored a maiden international century in the preceding summer, was sure to push for limited-overs selection too. Aged 26, it seemed he had it all in front of him. Instead the year brought major heart surgery and the realisation that it was over.

Taylor's response to the episode - positive, phlegmatic and brave - has been little short of inspirational. And there is no doubt this is a story that could easily have had a much worse ending. But the enormity of his loss - and the loss to English cricket - endures.

Will we see Alastair Cook lead England in the Ashes next year? © AFP

Fading stars
Two giants of English cricket ended the year with much to ponder. As James Anderson showed during the series against Sri Lanka, he remains a hugely dangerous bowler in English conditions. And, as he showed with his determination to get back into the England team after injury, his spirit remains undimmed.

But the gap between injuries seems to be growing ever shorter. He has now missed eight of England's 23 most recent Tests, and when he has been fit, he has sometimes struggled to recapture the pace that made his skills so dangerous. It is surely telling that his bowling average in six home Tests in 2016 was 15.26, while his average in six away Tests was 46.81. That leaves England - and Anderson - with some thinking to do ahead of an Ashes tour at the end of 2017.

Alastair Cook, too, finishes the year with some decisions to make. There were times on the tour of India when he looked jaded by the demands of captaincy, and he made it quite clear he wanted time to reflect before committing himself to continuing. With everyone understanding that his successor - almost certainly Joe Root - requires times to settle into the role (he has very little captaincy experience), it seems we can expect a decision before the end of January. Few who saw Cook in the final weeks of the India tour could believe he looked ready to commit to another year in the role.

What 2017 holds
England go into the Champions Trophy in June with confidence justifiably high. It's not just that they host the tournament - though that surely helps - but that they appear to have developed a strong ODI side, which really could end the quest for that long-awaited global ODI trophy.

After that they host South Africa and West Indies in home Test series, the latter of which series will include the first day-night Test in England, before departing for the latest instalment of the Ashes. As ever in English cricket, much of their year will be judged by their fortunes in that series.

If they are to enjoy success in Australia, it seems safe to assume they will have to see to it that their new top order settles in, one of their younger seamers steps up to the challenge of bowling on Australian wickets, and their batsmen develop a method that provides more consistent returns. The talent of this England side is unquestioned, but it has quite a few issues to resolve before it can fulfil its potential.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo