Australia v England, 4th Test, Melbourne December 25, 2013

England embrace a fresh start

Alastair Cook believes England's fresh start extends beyond team selection and offers opportunities to improve on all fronts

Cook admits captaincy flaws

The sight of Jonny Bairstow with the gloves, taking catches from Matt Prior at training, underlined the impression that England go into the fourth Test of this Ashes series embracing a fresh start.

With the Ashes lost, and the winds of change starting to pick up, Bairstow will, barring injury, replace Prior in the England side for match at the MCG. He is far from the finished article with the gloves, but his batting looks in good shape, he has a competitive instinct that should serve him well and, most of all, he is fresh.

That fresh word should not, in normal circumstances, be overly relevant. But as it becomes clear that the current England team is listless and jaded from too many battles, too many journeys and too much time in the same environment, the need for new faces and new energy has become apparent.

So, for the first time since August 2008 (when an England side with Tim Ambrose as keeper and Monty Panesar as spinner defeated South Africa at The Oval), England go into a Test without Prior, Jonathan Trott or Graeme Swann. While Swann has followed Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood into retirement, Prior, like Trott, might be considered a casualty of the schedule and the environment in which they have found themselves: fine players prematurely worn by over-use.

Prior's international career, like Trott's, is not necessarily over. He has been dropped before and showed the determination and class to bounce back. He is only 31 and a period of rest and recuperation may work wonders.

But this time it will not be easy. Once a side has moved on to a rebuilding phase and embraced the promise of younger men, it is much harder for those aged over 30 to fight their way back irrespective of how well they do in domestic cricket. Just ask Mark Ramprakash or Alan Richardson. So, with the likes of Jos Buttler progressing, there is a real possibility that, after 75 Tests, nearly 4,000 runs and 230 dismissals, the Prior era is over.

If that is so, he can look back on a terrific career characterised by selfless batting and reliable keeping. While never in the class of Alan Knott or Bob Taylor, Prior nevertheless became a decent keeper and, with his encouragement and advice, the heartbeat of England's fielding unit. Even his DRS calls will prove hard to replace. It was telling that, when all the cameramen and photographers had departed and the rest of the team dispersed after training, Prior hugged Bairstow and wished him luck. His commitment to the team remains exemplary.

With so many changes enforced upon England, there may be few other alterations. Panesar looks certain to play, as does Stuart Broad, while Boyd Rankin has been impressing in training and has made a strong case for inclusion ahead of Tim Bresnan. Any plans England may have had to drop any more senior players, even Kevin Pietersen, have been shelved. Fresh blood is important, but experience is also required for a game which will attract more than 90,000 spectators on the first day alone.

"It's all well and good saying 'the future, the future', but you've got to believe those players are ready to play as well," Alastair Cook said. "So there is a bit of a balancing act. We are so lucky with the support we've got, we owe it to them to try and put in a good performance."

The next age of England cricket extends beyond selection. Cook also admitted that results ahead of this series - the draw in New Zealand and the victories in the English summer - might have 'papered over cracks' in the side and that the fresh start provided an opportunity for improvement at all levels. Not least, according to Cook, there is a need for him to examine and improve his captaincy.

"When you win games of cricket it papers over some of the cracks that have been developing lately," he said. "And when you lose it hits you with stark reality exactly what you think needs to improve. There is no hiding place because you can't hide behind the fact that you are winning.

"So yes, I do believe [this situation] it is a chance for me to really stamp my authority. I think it will take time, as always. I've always tried to do the best job I can do, and maybe, by losing 3-0, I've really had to look into myself and see where I need to improve as captain.

"Previously, before that, we had won against New Zealand, we won the Ashes at home and won away in India, which is a great achievement but maybe that papered over some of the cracks in my captaincy as well.

"After these two games we have a bit of time off Test cricket - I think five months - and it's a real good chance to get very clear about exactly the direction I want the side - or we want the side - to go.

"When you lose games of cricket, you have to look at yourself first and what I could've done better. As a captain, I haven't had too much captaincy experience before I got the England job. There's always going to be a huge amount of stuff to learn and I've always said that, but we've always managed to win, so you always tend to look at yourself even more after losing games of cricket and see where I need to improve."

What England need most from Cook, though, is runs. It was his runs that led them in India and his runs that provided the platform for England's success here in 2010-11. Leadership comes in different forms and for Cook and England, a return to batting form from their captain would prove more influential than any field placing or inspirational speech.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • John on December 26, 2013, 10:13 GMT

    @HatsforBats on (December 25, 2013, 23:00 GMT) Cook is captain and most/more of his dismissals have been out to top bowling. He's out of nick and short on confidence but IMO it's worse when a player is in and giving his wkt away with lax shots. He seemed to try to do this today and was lucky CN overstepped. I also said about them resting Jimmy in another post so I'm not singling out KP. It is possible to rest/drop a player for a game if only to recharge the batteries you know.They dropped Prior who was our player of the year last year and has been a mainstay of our side for a long time. To me if they drop/rest other players it's not seen as singling out Prior.KP may score a ton in this match but I'm sticking to my guns on this one

  • Cam on December 26, 2013, 5:13 GMT

    England already playing for the draw at 2 an over? Root, Cook, failed again. The only surprise here is that Australia won the toss and are fielding. Otherwise normal Ashes service as we know it.

  • John on December 26, 2013, 1:52 GMT

    Prior was one of the most vocal critics of England's lack of IPL opportunity. No surprise here that when it's all said and done, he and Swanny might be available for a full IPL season next year with new auction coming up in Feb. along with KP. I guess he's used all the luck he had left on that "ball hitting the stumps without dislodging the bail" in NZ and since then has been in horrendous form. I'm a big JB fan...ever since he made his debut in that ODI against India a few years back and I'm rooting for him to succeed.

  • Dummy on December 25, 2013, 23:33 GMT

    1 cook 2 carberry 3 bell 4 kp 5 ballance 6 stokes 7 bairstow 8 bresnan 9 broad 10 rankin 11 Finn I think everyone who has toured should play due to our poor results. Root, Prior, Anderson all look in need of a rest and I hope they bat at a better tempo and speed up the over rate. Without Anderson playing, Cook won't have to endure a conference before each over. Good luck to the lads .

  • kieran on December 25, 2013, 23:00 GMT

    @ JG2704, but by your reasoning, Cook (who hasn't been doing it either) should also be dropped. And Anderson. You can't just drop your best players, after years of excellence, when they are struggling. That inspires no faith of reward for performance or confidence in team stability. Players keep looking over their shoulder for their replacement. Its just as damaging, if not more so, as dropping new players after less than stellar debuts.

  • Cam on December 25, 2013, 22:02 GMT

    Posted by Henrik Lovén on (December 25, 2013, 14:34 GMT), nice to see you here buddy, your very confident pre-series predictions are quite handy now.

  • John on December 25, 2013, 21:23 GMT

    It will be interesting to see what changes England makes. I believe Carberry has shown what he is- England's Ed Cowan. In 8 test innings he's reached 30 6 times but only made 50 once. I'd like to see Root back as opener and Ballance in as #5, with Bell moving up to #3. Bairstow for Prior is a good change, Prior hasn't been keeping well. Having Stokes in the side and Broad being fit allows England to pick Panesar.

    My side would be Cook, Root, Bell, KP, Ballance, Stokes, Bairstow, Bresnan. Broad, Anderson, Panesar.

    Those calling for Root to be dropped are crazy- he's 22, just came off an excellent 87 in the test before last and even when he hasn't been scoring has been developing his defence and ability to play in Australia. He needs experience, not sitting on the bench.

  • David on December 25, 2013, 20:41 GMT

    England are dropping Prior prematurely. You have to be careful whenever you feel a teams needs a little rebuilding - you can end up throwing the baby out with the bath water. England have only played badly for half a series, in a part of the world where only England and SA have triumphed in the past 20 years.

  • AJ on December 25, 2013, 20:35 GMT

    I agree blinks - Bairstow isn't a huge trump card, but the English have to do something here and I think the selection is the right one. I am keen to see Balance play, he looks like a very good first class player and I think deserves his shot. Selection headaches everywhere for England, but I would choose: 1. Cook 2. Carberry 3. Root 4. Pieterson 5. Bell 6. Ballance 7. Bairstow 8. Stokes 9. Broad 10. Anderson 11. Panesar If you're going to roll the dice, now is the time to do it.

  • Alex on December 25, 2013, 18:14 GMT

    As an Aussie fan i will be more than happy if they drop Prior for Bairstow. Bairstow caused us no problems with the bat a couple of months ago in England, and really has only had 1 good test match against SA at Lords.

    Prior kept poorly in the last test but he is still a better gloveman than Bairstow. If Broad isn't fit then Eng have no vice-captain as well.

  • No featured comments at the moment.