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March 2, 2009
England have had to radically downgrade their ambitions on this tour. The best they can now hope for from a series where in which they were expected to prevail is a draw. That would be enough to retain the Wisden Trophy, but it is hardly the emphatic statement that the post-Christmas problems demanded. Even if they can summon a huge effort in Trinidad to share the spoils their world standing has taken another knock.
"If you look back to Jamaica we had a terrible session of cricket that cost us the game," Andrew Strauss said. "Since then I think we have played some good cricket and maybe we haven't quite got what we deserved. But we have one more opportunity to level the series. It was obviously a big goal for us to come out here and win, we can't do that now. I don't think we have any real excuses for where we are at the moment but it would be nice to be on level terms certainly."
The team has yet to win a significant match in any of their assignments since heading to Antigua for the ill-fated Stanford Super Series in October. The only games they have won have been a one-day warm-up in India and the three-day practice match against a St Kitts Invitational XI at the beginning of this tour - hardly the credentials of a team that strives to be the world's best.
They survived comfortably on the final day here, as they should have done on a surface that has offered the bowlers precious little, with Alastair Cook finally breaking his century drought after 14 months and 16 Tests. However, for a large part of the innings it was little more than an extended net as the featherbed surface refused to yield.
England's batting is in fine fettle with totals of 566 and 600 in the last two Tests, but the inability to claim that last wicket in Antigua has now become even more costly and worrisome. It took them 194.4 overs to claim nine scalps in this game and the impotent bowling attack will be the main concern heading to Port of Spain.
"You've had eight, nine, ten bowlers on it [from both sides] and no one has really looked particularly threatening, so I wouldn't blame the quality of the bowling by any means," Strauss said. "And certainly from our point of view I thought they toiled exceptionally well. The way they continued bowling the right areas session after session was a great testament to the control they had."
But it isn't a new problem for England. They haven't bowled a side out twice since The Oval Test against South Africa in August and that came after three other matches where the bowlers struggled. "I think on all the wickets we have played on this winter both sides have struggled to take wickets, so it's not something that is unique to our side by any means," Strauss said.
"But clearly you need to find a way and that's something that we need to continue doing. I thought our bowlers innovated pretty well, we had a lot of cutters, slower balls, bouncers; round the wicket and over the wicket, so they are certainly thinking. None of those options had a huge amount of success for us but you learn from it. On a different wicket those options will stand you in good stead."
It's difficult to know what else they can do. Two of the options, Steve Harmison and Monty Panesar, have been dropped during this series for being ineffective but their names will come back into consideration, along with the uncapped Amjad Khan. Somehow, England need to find a cutting edge and will be praying that the pitch in Trinidad offers them something, either in the form of pace or spin.
The latter is more likely which raises the prospect of a twin-spin attack even without the availability of Andrew Flintoff to balance the team. Matt Prior, who missed this Test due to the birth of his son, returns on Tuesday and Strauss is going to have some tough decisions to make and serious thought will have to be given to playing five bowlers. What they must do is ensure those that are selected are fully fit because Ryan Sidebottom didn't appear to be at Test readiness.
The only way a five-man attack can realistically work is if the wicketkeeper bats at No. 6 and then it's down to which batsman is unlucky. "Last in, first out" would cost Ravi Bopara his place, but he has just scored a maiden century, while the least productive in Barbados was Owais Shah, but he has been guaranteed a run at No. 3. Three Tests ago this team was bowled out for 51 and now the batting looks almost top-heavy. "It's very clear that we need to take 20 wickets so that's definitely going to be an option we'll consider," Strauss said on the prospect of strengthening the attack.
So England will head to the Queens Park Oval in the next day or so and look anxiously at the surface. Strauss said it was important that the players don't have preconceived ideas about what to expect and try to adapt to conditions. "One danger in Test cricket is to play the next game like the last game," he said. "It would be wrong to assume it will just be a flat wicket again next week. Hopefully there will be more in the wicket in which case it will a completely different game of cricket."
The fate of Strauss's first series in full charge of England rests largely on that strip of 22 yards. It isn't quite how it was meant to pan out.
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