Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Another new beginning

Tuesday, 7 April 2015
As seems to have been the norm with England in recent times, they find themselves starting another series with a lot to prove. Whilst the end of last summer found the test side in relatively good health - bouncing back well despite the horrors of the Ashes fallout and a stuttering start against Sri Lanka and India - a disastrous World Cup campaign has done a lot to undo that image, leaving England in disarray once again. And it's certainly a tough year ahead - a schedule challenging enough for a more established side, let alone one filled with players only starting to make their name in international cricket. The coming twelve months see series against New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and Pakistan; first of all kicking things off with a tour of the West Indies.

On the face of it, a visit to the Caribbean might seem like a good place to start. A side weakened by battles with the board and absences to the IPL, West Indies don't appear to be the most challenging prospect at this time; certainly the view of new ECB head Colin Graves, describing them to be just 'mediocre' opposition. But even so, victory shouldn't be taken for granted - it was, after all, just their last visit that saw the infamous 51 all out and England unable to wrap up a single victory to avoid series defeat. And West Indies are the sort of side - much like England themselves - that can appear equally capable of springing an upset or pressing the self destruct button. England should be favourites to come away with a series win, but even so, their opposition should not be underestimated and England will always make you feel nervous.

There are still many questions about this England team that are yet to be answered, and the World Cup served to raise even more. A lot of them again seem to be revolving around the captain, Alastair Cook. He went a way to answering his critics at the back end of the summer, recovering to victory over India and getting some runs under his belt as well, but the struggles aren't over for him yet. A test century still eluded him, his highest score being 94 - six runs that mean so little, and yet make all the difference. And then he was sacked from the ODI captaincy - rightfully so, but a blow to his image and one he is still smarting from. The sacking may well, in a strange way, have saved him - lessening his association with a tragic tournament that could have ruined him - but he will still have a lot to prove. With big opposition coming up, England need a fully firing Alastair Cook, the one we know to be up there with the world's best batsmen and who leads by example. But if his struggles continue, his captaincy and even his place in the side will be questioned again. And he'll have an awful lot of left armers to face. 

The Kevin Pietersen drama has again reared its ugly head. I have swung between being drawn to the whole thing, lapping it up like a hungry gossip, and being tired of the constant fuss. The door has been opened for Pietersen to return - whether he will or not is another question, but there is a chance at least. Should he come back? Who knows. For me, the test team has moved on, and he'll be unlikely age-wise to play in the next ODI World Cup, but maybe with another World Twenty20 next year he could fit in for a final swansong. But - even though it means agreeing with Peter Moores - I find it a shame that the focus is still on a batsman who won't be featuring on the tour when there are a bunch of players breaking into the side, and who will be a much bigger presence in the team's future. The issue seems to be forever there, lingering and lurking and following England wherever they go.

There are still many spots to be filled in this side. Since the retirement of Andrew Strauss, nobody has really stepped up and made that second opening spot their own. I'm torn over who it should be - I would love to see Jonathan Trott back in the team but, and especially as a Yorkshire fan, I also think Adam Lyth has earned his chance and I want to see him have a go as well. Though Ballance had a troubled time in the World Cup, his performances last summer make it unlikely that Trott will return to that number three berth, but chances are Trott will be filling that spot at the top of the order. Bowling wise it will also be interesting to see the line up, with Moeen Ali being missing at the start of the tour and Woakes gone throughout due to injuries. It may mean Stokes returning to number six in the batting lineup, and I for one would love to see Adil Rashid playing as the spinner. It's great to see him back in the England set up, and I really hope it won't be just to carry the drinks. The last bowling spot will then be between Jordan, Plunkett and the new name in the squad, Mark Wood. Despite such poor showings at the World Cup, I would imagine Anderson and Broad will remain, though Broad in particular should be under a lot of pressure. The senior players need to step up too.

England should be a lot more comfortable returning to test matches, and hopefully this series will provide an immediate opportunity to put their World Cup woes behind them. Winning back the Ashes looks a tall, tall task from here, but it shouldn't be completely out of the question back on home soil. We're at the start of a crucial twelve months for English test cricket, and we'll see perhaps the first serious challenges for the new faces from the past year. It will be a chance to prove just how good they are, but it could well be a bumpy ride.

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