Monday, 14 September 2015

A work in progress

Monday, 14 September 2015
It was a disappointing end to the international summer for England, as they collapsed to 138 in the deciding match of the ODI series against Australia. It was perhaps a fitting end to Australia's tour: a second half of the summer where the overall scorelines have been close, but results themselves have most often been one-sided affairs dramatically flip-flopping between the teams from one game to next. But for England, after such a debacle at the World Cup earlier in the year, an overall scoreline of 3-2 against the world champions isn't really a bad result at all.

Of course, when England went 2-0 down early on in the series, there was a slight feeling that any progress made against New Zealand earlier in the summer was slipping away. England failed to take advantage when on top at the Rose Bowl, the brilliance of Wade (71*) and Marsh (40*) seeing Australia to a total of 305/6 after being more precariously placed at 193/6 with thirteen overs to go. And after starting brightly in response, as wickets fell the pressure of a large total on the scoreboard and the greater Australian pedigree proved the winner. The second match proved much the same as the first. England chased a similar score and had a decent enough start - but when the wickets fell the pressure became too much and Australia could easily press home. It was the dismissal of Stokes - given out obstructing the field - that grabbed the most headlines, but it was hard to mask how poorly England batted on their way to 245 all out.

England though showed the series was still very much alive. At Old Trafford England batted first, their own chance to put Australia under the pressure of the scoreboard, and of batting under the lights. England reached 300, and could probably have made more - only three players made it past 20, but those three players made it count. Roy (63) got England off to a flyer, making his mark in this series after struggling to have a great impact against New Zealand; while Morgan (62) followed up his runs in the previous match and the Twenty20 preceding the series. James Taylor though was the star, making his maiden international century, justice at last after missing out with 98* in the World Cup. This time England could press the advantage, and spectacular catches from Roy and Finn further showed how the pendulum had swung in their favour. A successful chase at Headingley, thanks largely again to the bat of Morgan (92) but with contributions coming across the order, levelled the series for a final decider on return to Old Trafford.

But it just wasn't to be. It all went wrong from the first over - no review taken when Roy was dubiously given out LBW - and the wickets only continued to tumble. Morgan was forced to retire hurt after being struck on the head, a nasty blow that left him with a concussion and understandably shook all those playing and watching. All England could muster was 138, a target Australia duly chased down within 25 overs. The final crushing, one-sided affair in a summer full of such contests between the two sides.

It will be terribly disappointing for England to have been beaten so badly, and it's a shame that a summer that has seen so many dazzling highs has to end on a lower note. Australia's team for the final match was vastly different from the eleven that won the World Cup in March - seven players absent for various reasons - showing that there is still a considerable gap between the two. England, have struggled for consistency in all forms of the game this summer, capable of thrilling the crowds and running rampant on their day, but on others collapsing with the bat and struggling to make an impact with the ball. They have shown this summer that they are capable of posting big scores and chasing them down, and certainly look much less inhibited in their approach with the bat, but at the same time there's still a lingering thought that a collapse might not be that far away.

Of course, it's a team in which many are still so new to international cricket. Many of this team didn't feature in the World Cup, and are still learning their games at this level just as much as the selectors are finding out more about them. It's even the same for many who did feature earlier in the year; for instance James Taylor, who returned to the side this series after missing out against New Zealand. Though he didn't always make the most of the starts he had, for me he was particularly impressive - looking busy at the crease and looking good against spin, something England could well need in the winter. He came into the side with Joe Root rested, and did enough to show that England should try and find room for them both. Jason Roy too started to make an impact and show his big-hitting potential. With two fifties he saw England off to some quick starts, though more than once he was dismissed tamely and failed to capitalise on his early efforts. Of the bowlers, I thought Plunkett showed he has a lot to offer - his pace offers a lot to the attack plus his lower order hitting can help see through the late stages of an innings. David Willey is another who has impressed me - he's not the quickest bowler but the left arm angle gives another dimension, plus he can really get that ball moving. His attitude too is great to see - he gives it his all and is a fierce competitor.

Others though haven't had the same impact. Alex Hales has struggled for runs over this series, and though his batting ability is undoubted, right now he looks desperately out of form. He's struggled so far in his ODI career to have the same impact that he's had in the Twenty20 side, though admittedly over the winter he was often played out of position at number three rather than his usual role opening up. Against New Zealand he started to show the damage he could do at the top of the order, and for me it's only a matter of time before the partnership with Roy, already showing some signs of flowering, really reaches full bloom. Chris Woakes is another who struggled this series. With Woakes I'm never sure if he's quite got the pace to succeed at international level, and though he was one of England's more effective bowlers over the winter, during this series he didn't look very threatening at all. There's a lot to play for among the bowlers with England still looking for their preferred attack, and Woakes didn't take advantage of the opportunity presented to him, going wicketless in three games played.

Even with the stumbles along the way, it does though feel like England are making a lot of progress in the shortened formats. The World Cup was the lowest of low ebbs, a time when England looked to be so far behind the times, and the players all bereft of confidence in their abilities and of any form. The consistency is still lacking, but in general England look much more competitive, much more capable of making those big scores and playing with the freedom and fun that was so lacking before. There's definitely still a lot more to be done, but they've showed they can compete with the rest again.

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