Wednesday, 20 August 2014

England's progress report

Wednesday, 20 August 2014
So, we have come to the end of the test summer and while it's been a bumpy ride, progress has definitely been made. Once again England have provided a rollercoaster of emotions - going from the tension and disappointment of the tests against Sri Lanka; close to rock bottom after defeat to India at Lord's; to emphatic victories in the last three tests. England have shown progress throughout the summer - but the task is not over yet and there are still plenty of areas for improvement. Here is my take on England's summer and what still needs to be done.

First of all, the captaincy. I was among those who believed Cook should go after Lord's, though still not knowing who the best man was to replace him. Thankfully, it has got better since then. The thing with Cook is that while he does have his moments where he is inventive and makes good decisions, he sometimes has long periods when he has no answers - and particularly when England are put under pressure. This was something particularly visible in the second game against Sri Lanka, when Angelo Mathews' brilliant performance took the game beyond England's reach and set up his team's eventual victory. Credit must be given to Cook though for England's recovery - he does look to have helped create a team spirit with everyone behind him, and he must have said something right for them to come bouncing back in the fashion they have after such a low ebb. He does truly have a team to lead now, not like the fracturing side of the Ashes. Yet England were barely put under any real pressure in the last three tests, so he should not rest easy yet. He still needs to have more back up plans for when England are really under pressure, as they will undoubtedly be when they come to play teams such as Australia, South Africa, and Pakistan in the coming year. But he has shown enough to stay in his job, when at times this summer it really looked like he wouldn't.

The question of the opener is still one that has gone unsolved since the retirement of Andrew Strauss in 2012. Unfortunately, the search may still continue with Robson still not having nailed down his place in the side. He did show his potential with a century and a fifty but too many times he was nervous around his off stump, that famous corridor of uncertainty where batsmen can be exposed in test cricket. He is young enough and has enough promise to come back, and I do hope he gets another chance, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him replaced in the side when England return to test cricket in the Caribbean in April. A strong showing in the one day side could help Alex Hales find his way into the test team, a move that would be popular among many; or perhaps one of the Yorkshire pair of Adam Lyth and Alex Lees could work their way in (Lyth the more likely - Lees just a bit too young). There are options for England, but the man chosen for the spot in the tour of West Indies will in all likelihood be the man they go for in the Ashes - so it will time to stick or twist.

The middle order though does look close to being solved. Gary Ballance looked at home batting at number three despite his lack of experience that high, making three fifties and three centuries and impressing in the calm way he seemed to handle it all. Bell remains a class act, and though he didn't perform to his best he is always a great player to have in the side. Joe Root put his troubled winter behind him and continued to show why he is one of the most promising young players in world cricket. Jos Buttler also showed no nerves stepping up to the test arena, and though his glovework is still a work in progress, his batting brought excitement and youthful energy; he really looks a player who can take a match away from the opposition. The only question mark so far would be over Moeen Ali, though his spin bowling has made up for his lack of runs. He showed great character against Sri Lanka, coming so close to saving the game with his century in the second innings at Headingley, but since then the runs have dried up and a concerning problem against the short ball become evident. England will have to hope he learns fast, because he will certainly be targeted next year by bowlers like Johnson and Harris, Steyn and Morkel. There's also the question of finding the right spot for Ben Stokes - despite his horrible form, number eight is still too low for him really and the right balance has to be found.

The bowling is still a work in progress - though Broad and Anderson are nailed on for England's strongest eleven, the question is about who their support should be. Steven Finn remains around the side, and if he does get back to his best then he has to be a definite pick - his pace and height are just such valuable assets and he has proven ability at international level. Of those we have seen this summer, they have all had their moments. I was pleased to see Plunkett back in the side and finding success with his nine wickets at Headingley before injury put him out of action, and looks a good option to have in the pack. Stokes is an exciting player, a genuine all rounder, and though his batting fell apart I was surprised to see him dropped after doing well in the two tests he played against India - particularly after batting at number eight anyway. Jordan is a player who looks to have something about him and a knack of picking up wickets, though he is still a work in progress with consistency an issue. Woakes is the one I'm least sure about - I'm just not sure he has that extra quality to take wickets at international level (or at least tests - he could fit into the ODI team). But I must say he has seemed to improve with every test, and also didn't always have the luck he deserved. I think generally they have a good crop of young bowlers who it is worth sticking with, and it's good to see that there are several in their plans because with 17 tests in twelve months coming up, rotation will be important.

With spin bowling it does look like England have found an answer as to who should replace Graeme Swann. Moeen Ali has improved as the summer has gone on, going from someone only seen as a part timer at the start of the summer to now being viewed as a genuine front line bowler. The way he has adapted to this level has been impressive; he has taken on advice from other players and people in the game to find what works best, and the results have been visible. Filling the boots of Graeme Swann, one of England's most successful spinners ever, was always going to be a difficult task but he has done a good job of it so far and played a large role in England's victories. He is no world beater yet, but has done away with the doom and gloom foreseen when looking at England's apparently bare spin cupboard at the start of the summer.

The bigger challenges are yet to come for England, and it won't be surprising to see many more bumps along the way with next year's Ashes and tours to South Africa and Pakistan to come within a twelve month period. But there is certainly hope - there are a good young bunch of players who have really started to perform, and that much sought after team spirit looks to have returned. The misery of the start of the year, and of points during the summer, is starting to be dispelled and as fans we have something to cheer about once again. England's jigsaw isn't yet complete - one series win does not make them world beaters - but maybe, just maybe, the pieces are starting to fall into place.

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