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England search for elusive ruthlessness

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We haven't grabbed crucial moments - Cook (2:37)

England captain Alastair Cook defended his side after their second Test defeat to New Zealand at Headingley, saying they had seen much promise for the future (2:37)

You didn't think it was all going to be plain sailing, did you? You didn't think, after the exhilaration of Lord's, that England's rebuilding job would come without setbacks and wrong turns?

There were bound to be days like this. And, with Australia, Pakistan and South Africa lurking in the months that follow, there will be more days like this.

To listen to some commentators, you would conclude drastic change is due. You would conclude that Gary Ballance and Ian Bell and Moeen Ali and, despite seven wickets and 69 runs in this game, even Stuart Broad should be dropped. And it is true that all of them have, to some extent, issues to resolve before the Ashes.

But England have been down that route before. They have experimented with fickle selection and it brought only failure. Now is not the time to abandon plans. Now is not the time to lose faith in talented players who have shown, in glimpses at least, that they prosper at this level.

There are seven young or inexperienced players in this England team. Inconsistency is inevitable. They are going to require patience if they are to fulfil their potential. The ECB can't sack the coach every time they lose a game. As Paul Farbrace, the interim coach put it, "there will be some pain on the way, but it's worth it in the long run."

There is a variable in there. The new coach, Trevor Bayliss, has yet to start - he is not expected in the UK for another three weeks - and may have strong views about particular players. But that seems unlikely. Realistically, England are committed to most of this team as the XI that will play the first Test of the Investec Ashes.

In the long-term, there should be reflection on why so many England players - particularly Moeen and Jos Buttler - are learning their trade at international level. Something has gone wrong in the system if there are so few keeping and spin bowling options for the national team.

But it is too late to change systems or schedules ahead of the Ashes. Instead, most of the likely Ashes team will return to their county sides and play at least two Championship matches before the next Test series. Moeen and Bell, especially, look as if they require an injection of confidence more than anything else.

One factor that must not be overlooked in the coming days is that England lost this Test - and drew this series - against a fine side. It is no disgrace to lose to a team of New Zealand's ability and many will celebrate that they were rewarded for the appealing manner in which they played. They provide proof that cricket can be played with passion and aggression without resorting to sledging and threats. They have been a breath of fresh air in a beautiful sport that has, of late, sometimes looked a little ugly and their spirit improved England's.

"We've learned a lot from the way they've played," Farbrace told the BBC afterwards. "They've put us under more pressure than we've put them under.

"We were disappointing in our catching. And we didn't bowl enough balls to hit the top of off stump.

"But we know we're not a finished team. We know we've work to do. We have some inexperienced players and the only way they'll learn is by playing. So you have to take some pain along the way."

Are Australia so much better than New Zealand? They may bowl a little quicker, certainly, and they snarl a little more. But do they have bowlers more skilful than Trent Boult or batsmen with better technique and temperament than Kane Williamson? If they do, there are questions about their fitness. The step up in class for the Ashes series is not as great as some might have you believe. The step up in hostility and pressure, however, might be.

With all that accepted, though, this was an increasingly weak performance from England. To lose a Test by 199 runs from a position where they were 177 without loss in their first innings, speaks of a lack of ruthlessness. At almost the identical stage of their first innings - after 57 or 58 overs - New Zealand were 265 for 7. England should have built a first innings lead of at least 100.

England were, with the ball in particular, sucked into playing New Zealand's way. Just as Floyd Mayweather never allows himself to be sucked into a slugging match, so England should have retained their discipline with the ball rather than chasing the game. Instead of bowling dry - a key feature of the successful England side of 2009-2011 - and instead of focusing on hitting the top of off stump, they bowled persistently short.

While New Zealand deserve credit for hitting them off their length, England failed to set appropriate fields - such as long-on and long-off - and failed to deliver the slower balls and yorkers that were required. Alastair Cook has to take a great deal of the responsibility for that.

But even after conceding far too many runs, England should have put up a better fight on the final day. To be dismissed by fine deliveries is one thing; to lose three wickets to Williamson's accurate but hardly vicious off-breaks is poor. Moeen displayed his lack of confidence by allowing a straight one to hit his stumps, while to see Bell turn a ball into the hands of the leg slip who had just been positioned for the stroke was infuriating.

If you insert a side in the first innings - a perfectly reasonable decision here - you cannot complain when you bat on a fifth-day pitch. If you drop catches - three in eight balls at one stage - you cannot complain when the opposition scores heavily. When you hit a ball directly at a fielder - as Joe Root did in the second innings, albeit firmly - you cannot curse your poor fortune if he catches it.

Despite all the talk of positivity, England allowed Mark Craig, in particular, to settle into a rhythm in the first innings when he could have been targeted as a weak link. New Zealand are a good side, but England will reflect they contributed hugely to this defeat.

Amid the disappointments, there were some encouraging signs. Cook, in becoming the youngest man in history to 9,000 Test runs, looks back to his best - a vital element in England's Ashes plans - Adam Lyth confirmed his position as opener against Australia and Buttler provided a further example of his improvement as a batsman. We knew he could flash; it was encouraging to see him defy. It says something for his rise that it is already hard to think who the Test selectors would turn to if he were injured.

Most of the squad - James Anderson is, at this stage, the only exception - will be available to play in the NatWest T20 Blast for their counties at the weekend, while several will then be expected to gain as much County Championship playing time as possible ahead of the Ashes. Ballance may have endured a tough run of low scores, but it is the form of Moeen and Bell that is causing the most concern.

"Moeen hasn't bowled as well as he did last summer," Cook admitted. "But he does spin the ball hard; he just needs to get the control back.

"There will be concerns over Bell and Ballance as they haven't scored the runs they would have liked. But they've got five weeks to go and find form in county cricket."

Form and confidence. The lack of either in the Ashes will be ruthlessly exposed.

But maybe now is not the time to be worrying about the future. After recent series involving England have been marred by threats to break arms, pushing and shoving between players and the sort of infantile posturing that should be reserved for playgrounds and zoos, New Zealand have provided a reminder of the way this great game should be played. England and Australia should take note.