December 28, 2011

Hold the accolades, please

Sure, England had a great year but their true test will be how long they can sustain their world-beating ways

As cricket's worldbeaters of yesteryear would readily attest, the challenge of being the best is as much about one's inner drive as anything else. When West Indies and Australia ruled the roost for decades at a time, their endless strings of victories eventually came to feel commonplace, and yet the more the results racked up, so too did the expectations associated with them. One slip - be it against England at Sabina Park in 1989-90, or Bangladesh at Sophia Gardens in 2005 - and prophecies of doom would swiftly follow.

With that in mind, England's performances in 2011 - glorious though many of them were - will be better judged two or three years down the line, once the euphoria of their ascent to No. 1 in the world Test rankings has been put into context by their ability (or otherwise) to sustain the same levels of desire that got them there in the first place.

Taken in isolation, England have rarely - if ever - been quite so formidable in the longest form of the game. They boast an established raft of batsmen with an extraordinary collective repertoire, from the insatiable crease occupation of Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott, to the exquisite strokeplay of the newly mature Ian Bell, and on through the explosive capabilities that Kevin Pietersen, Eoin Morgan and Matt Prior all possess in abundance.

Further down the order, Tim Bresnan, Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad have the ability to produce match-turning innings, as each man proved during the fraught early stages against India, and that's before you even factor in the devastating potential of England's bowling outfit. James Anderson was peerless during the Ashes and unplayable at key moments against India, while two of England's outstanding performers of the year found themselves on the fringes of selection for one reason or another - Chris Tremlett in the Tests against Sri Lanka and Steven Finn on the one-day tour of India.

As a consequence, the statistics of England's Test year were stunning. They added a further four double-centuries to the three that they managed in 2010, and in so doing eclipsed Len Hutton's 1938 Ashes summer as England's most prolific year for "daddy hundreds" ever. On the back of such domineering performances, they racked up a further four innings victories in eight Tests, to take their recent tally to nine by an innings since December 2009.

Had it not been for some foul weather during the Sri Lanka series in May and June, England might have expected to extend that record even further, although their most remarkable victory of the year was achieved in spite of the elements. In an incredible final-day heist in Cardiff, England overcame the apathy of the Welsh public, 938 of whom bothered to show up at the ground, and bowled Sri Lanka out for 82 in 24.4 overs to snatch a result from the dampest of draws.

"Sometimes you have to create your own intensity," said Andrew Strauss, in arguably the most succinct explanation for England's current Test form. Their desire to scale the heights proved irresistible to each of their opponents, even in situations of apparent weakness such as existed against India in the pivotal second Test at Trent Bridge. On that occasion it was Broad who stepped up with his defining performance - a gutsy half-century, a six-wicket haul including a hat-trick, and a Saturday evening session that will never be forgotten by any of the thousands of fans who thronged to watch the tussle for top spot hot up.

Despite all that, 2011 was not a year that will be recorded with absolute fondness by England. Their performances since 2009 had been impressive in all three forms of the game - steady improvement in Test cricket, notable successes over 50 overs, and of course the World Twenty20 triumph in 2010 - but in a year of upheaval on the limited-overs front, they suffered three substantial embarrassments, one of which came at the World Cup, no less.

There are mitigating factors for each of the setbacks - their 6-1 drubbing by Australia came in the immediate wake of the Ashes, which in turn left the squad on their chinstraps ahead of a gruelling two-month World Cup campaign. To allow the team just three nights at home between those tours was a travesty, and one that will not be repeated now that the next Ashes trip has been brought forward to 2013-14. But if England truly aspire to be the dominant team of the coming decade, which is clearly the aim, they will need to find ways to forge results in adverse circumstances, such as a post-season series against a chastened India team.

England's target for 2012 ought to be five series wins. Like for Glenn McGrath with his 5-0 predictions of old, any less of an ambition would be a suggestion of weakness

Right at this moment, England arguably have more to prove than at any other stage in their post-2009 renaissance. An unfair assessment? Maybe, but then again, when Michael Vaughan's men got within spitting distance of the No. 1 ranking in the summer of 2005, their credentials were demolished in the subsequent 18 months. All the signs would suggest that England are better prepared to cope with the heightened expectations this time around - their squad is far deeper for starters - and yet, on the occasions when they allowed their standards to slip, that old adage about team spirit being an illusion glimpsed in victory rang disturbingly true.

On the flip side, England did have a number of reasons to feel encouraged about their all-round development. Cook, the new one-day captain, was derided as a "plodder" by Michael Atherton but responded with a remarkable string of performances, including 80 not out from 63 balls in a 23-over run-chase against India at the Rose Bowl. A host of big-hitting young batsmen were given their first taste of international cricket, with a particular view to the World Twenty20 defence in September 2012, and while there were plenty of calamities along the way, the achievement of beating both the World Cup finalists, India and Sri Lanka, albeit on home soil, was not to be sniffed at.

Either way, the true test of England's mettle is lurking around the corner. Kevin Pietersen returned to Test form after a troubling 18 months with a bombastic brace of hundreds at Lord's and The Oval, but his one-day appetite remains in some doubt. And then there's the thorny issue of the Test captain, Strauss, whose last hundred in that format came in Brisbane back in November 2010. He added another century of huge significance in the tied World Cup game against India in February, but could not replicate those levels of intensity in England's home summer.

With just one form of the game keeping Strauss occupied these days, he has been in mothballs since August - which on the one hand represents a welcome break for a player who has given so much to the cause for so long. Nevertheless, his personal drive has been one of the defining features of England's surge in fortunes since 2009. He turns 35 in March, and will need to prove swiftly that his achievements of the past two years have not left him sated.

New kid on the block
Though he went on to endure a tough tour of India, the most eye-catching debut of England's year was that of Jonny Bairstow in the fifth ODI against India in Cardiff. At the age of 21, and with an asking rate of nine an over to overcome, he proved that even born-and-bred Englishmen can clear the ropes on demand, with a thrilling 41 not out from 21 balls.

The year's big revelation, however, was arguably Tim Bresnan, even though he hardly qualifies as a newcomer after five years in and around the international set-up. After returning to Test cricket with a bang in Melbourne in the final week of 2010, he moved himself effortlessly up the pecking order in 2011. His all-round display against India at Trent Bridge was so irresistible that the injured Chris Tremlett was barely mentioned for the rest of the summer. Come the flat decks of the Emirates in January, Bresnan's stamina is sure to be in high demand.

Fading star
Paul Collingwood's demise was swift and unbecoming of a player who had been so self-sacrificing throughout a decade of international involvement. However, it quickly transpired that his Test retirement, which he announced midway through the Sydney Test in January, would not be enough to prolong the rest of his international career. At times during his stop-start World Cup campaign, it seemed he was being selected primarily for his offcutters, and when England unveiled their three-captain strategy at Lord's in May, the fact he was overlooked for the Twenty20 role in favour of Broad barely caused a ripple of dissent. At Test level his departure, like that of Nasser Hussain in 2004, was poignant but well timed, with England ready to take their batting to a more purposeful level.

High point
In terms of personal satisfaction, it was tough for England's players to top the events on the final day of the Ashes in January. However, their most complete performance came at Edgbaston in August, when Alastair Cook's 294 formed the bedrock of their total of 710 for 7 declared, England's highest innings score since 1938. That was the contest that sealed an unassailable 3-0 series lead, and so guaranteed that they would finish the series as the world's No.1 Test side. That they went on to complete the whitewash at The Oval was a bonus.

Low point
Losing to Ireland and Bangladesh in the World Cup was embarrassing, although in mitigation, England's frantic scramble into the quarter-finals at least provided a compelling storyline to what would otherwise have been an interminable first month of the tournament. It was England's later visit to the subcontinent, in October, that was the true nadir of the year. On the one hand, the tour could be written off as an end-of-season irrelevance, especially seeing as England had just won 3-0 against India in their home ODIs. On the other, they knew full well that a chastened opposition would be gunning for revenge. Naive batting gave way to slipshod fielding, and with the likes of MS Dhoni and Suresh Raina primed to capitalise, England never gave themselves a prayer.

What 2012 holds
England played just eight Tests in 2011 - their lightest workload in that format for more than a decade. However, 2012 promises a reversion to type, with 15 Tests in the pipeline against five different opponents. It will be the year that determines England's right to be considered the No. 1 team in that format, with trips to UAE, Sri Lanka and India bookending the year, and a seismic (though scandalously curtailed) three-Test series against South Africa providing the summer highlight. Their target at this stage has to be five series wins. Like for Glenn McGrath with his 5-0 predictions of old, any less of an ambition would be a suggestion of weakness.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo