England December 30, 2008

The captain and the piper

England's 2008 began in earnest in the summer, with Pietersen's ascent to the helm and Stanford's audacious overture

Let's hear it for the boy: Pietersen has had an eventful first few months in the job, and he has been impressive in that time © AFP

Two thousand and eight was the year that changed cricket forever, but in the crazy sprint towards the game's new future, England were the team caught dawdling in the starting blocks. On the field and off it, they endured a year of extraordinary transition, but by the time they had recovered their stride pattern, many of their rivals seemed to have streaked too far ahead to be reeled in.

The talking points of England's season were too numerous to list in a single breath. In an ordinary year, the resignation of Michael Vaughan, their most successful Test captain of all time, would have been the standout event. In the final analysis, however, his tearful farewell was just another moment competing for airtime, one that was swiftly overshadowed by the announcement of his successor, Kevin Pietersen.

Aside from Pietersen, whose full impact as captain will become clear enough in time, the most significant players in England's season were to be found beyond the boundary's edge. On June 11, the arrival at Lord's of the Texan billionaire, Sir Allen Stanford, sent shockwaves through the shires, both for the audacity of the offer he brought with him - five US$20 million winner-takes-all contests between England and his Stanford Superstars - and for the eagerness with which Giles Clarke, the ECB's opportunistic chairman, leapt for the loot.

To all intents and purposes, that date - June 11 - marked the true start of England's year, because up until that point they had lacked any meaningful focus. Thanks to a quirk in the international calendar, each of England's first 19 internationals of 2008 (six Tests, 10 ODIs, three Twenty20s) came against the glamour-free New Zealanders, a team of worthy competitors who gave as good as they got (and better over 50 overs), but against whom it was impossible to gauge any significant progress.

As if to prove the peripheral nature of these contests, England's main man of this early part of the year was destined to have been forgotten by its end. Ryan Sidebottom was named the PCA Player of the Year after claiming 41 wickets in six Tests home and away, including a hat-trick in Hamilton and a career-best 7 for 47 in Napier. But despite his best efforts, something indiscernible was lacking, and it wasn't merely the ongoing absence of Andrew Flintoff, whose fourth bout of ankle surgery had left a void in the team that no single player could adequately fill.

It wasn't until South Africa arrived in England in early July that the real problem was discerned. England's bowlers lacked a serious cutting edge. Steve Harmison had been dropped after an awful performance in Hamilton in March, and in his absence the attack comprised the consistently inconsistent James Anderson, the rookie Stuart Broad and the hardworking Sidebottom, backed up by Monty Panesar's left-arm spin. That combination had taken it in turns to see off the Kiwis, but as a unit they came horribly unstuck against the better-drilled South Africans.

Their failure to force victory with South Africa on the ropes at Lord's in turn heaped pressure onto the shoulders of Vaughan, whose reputation as an inspirational captain had been losing its sheen ever since the home series defeat against India in 2007. With his personal form falling away with every game, his integrity also came into question after England were overwhelmed by 10 wickets at Headingley, a game in which he tacitly blamed the debutant Darren Pattinson for undermining the spirit within the dressing room.

It took one more game, and two more failures, for Vaughan's time at the helm to come to a swift and ignominious end. England's failure to defend a fourth-innings target of 281 enabled South Africa to surge to their first series win in the country since readmission, and to usher in the era of Pietersen (who took over the one-day captaincy from Paul Collingwood in one all-embracing appointment). His first significant move as leader was to restore Harmison as an out-and-out strike bowler, a decision that paid handsome dividends with a maiden victory, at The Oval.

Pietersen's first five months in the role were eventful to say the least. He could do no wrong against his native South Africans, whom he beat in five completed matches out of five, and even in humiliation in Antigua and India he maintained a diplomatic composure that impressed those who had assumed he would be too volatile under pressure. But it wasn't until the terrorist attacks in Mumbai that he really came into his own. Clarke and Hugh Morris were major players in the negotiations that ensured that the Test series in India went ahead in spite of the atrocities, but without Pietersen's firm but fair persuasions behind the scenes, a full-strength tour party would surely not have boarded the flight from Abu Dhabi to Chennai.

It is a moot point whether England would have resumed their tour had the destination been anywhere other than India, the financial hub of the world game, but at the same time the decision brought out into the open many of the underlying issues that had been niggling away at England's year. The failure of the ECB to provide a window for their players to take part in the inaugural IPL season had been a major bone of contention all year long - one that the Stanford deal had only partially atoned for. The improved dialogue between the two boards might yet help to turn the team's long-term fortunes around.

New kid on the block
Stuart Broad. His season tailed off in India where injury and fatigue combined to limit his impact, but few English rookies have seemed so assured of a long-term future at the highest level. An intelligent paceman with enough aggression to make up for the yard of speed his frame currently lacks, Broad is also an increasingly cocksure batsman, who at times against New Zealand was England's most reliable source of runs. Geoff Boycott is in awe of his cover-drive, going so far as to invoke the memory of Garry Sobers. He would be a surefire hit in the IPL, given half a chance.

The next new Botham? Stuart Broad is shaping up to the be the allrounder of England's dreams © AFP

Fading star
Matthew Hoggard featured in a solitary international in 2008, and will surely not be back for an encore next summer, given the ruthlessness with which he was jettisoned after England's shock defeat in Hamilton in March. Steve Harmison was the worst offender in that contest, and though he too was left out for the subsequent Wellington Test, England soon discovered they could not live without him any more than they could live with him. Hoggard's enduring attributes of loyalty and diligence could not compensate for the apparent decline in his on-field effectiveness.

High point
Pietersen's honeymoon period. Vaughan left the England captaincy just as he had arrived in it, midway through back-to-back Test matches against South Africa, allowing his successor barely 48 hours to get his house in order. Pietersen did so with stunning efficiency. He recalled Harmison to inject more oomph into his attack, he scored a century at the first attempt to stamp his mark on his new role, and having won his maiden Test, at The Oval, he carried that momentum into an incredible 4-0 victory in the subsequent ODI series. At that moment in time, he could do no wrong, and England looked like they had it cracked.

Low point
The Stanford shenanigans. Faced with a fortnight in the Caribbean sun, and the prospect of riches beyond their wildest dreams, England's cricketers got their knickers into a total twist, before skulking away empty-handed and straight into a 5-0 ODI drubbing in India. Complaints about a tea-party atmosphere intermingled with gripes about the floodlights and playing surface, not to mention deep suspicion of their patron, Allen Stanford, who invited himself into the dressing room uninvited before being pictured bouncing Matt Prior's wife, Emily, on his knee. The phrase "be careful what you wish for" had never felt so apt.

What 2009 holds
England's biggest home season since 2005 looms, with the twin highlights of the ICC World Twenty20 and, of course, the Ashes. Victory in either would atone for a multitude of sins (and for the first time in 20 years, England could well be favourites by the time the Australians arrive). But off the field the politicking will continue apace, and England's improved post-Mumbai relationship with India will have to be cultivated for the greater good. Stanford-style exercises are all very well, but without a presence in the Asian market, English cricket won't even have a soul worth selling to the highest bidder.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo