They say 27 days is a long time in cricket. Actually they don’t, I just made that up, but in England’s case it rings true as loudly as they were applauded off The Oval pitch last weekend, having crushed India to a pulp for a third Test match in succession.
Described as ‘absolutely pathetic’ by ex-captain Michael Vaughan in the wake of their dismal 95 run defeat to the tourists at Lords on July 21 (a seventh loss in nine matches) the ensuing trio of quickfire wins has transformed the perception of Alistair Cook’s team beyond recognition.
From pitiful to promising in less than a month, English cricket is now blooming with pride once more.
But are there genuine grounds for optimism?
Or were the out-of-sorts Indians so dire that anyone with their own set of whites could have skittled them out with ease?
The answer probably lies somewhere in between.
What’s crystal clear is that England NEEDED to win this series, and win it with plenty to spare too.
Sorry defeats to Australia and Sri Lanka had caused what was beginning to seem like irreparable damage to the dressing room. The blame game had set in, players were bereft of confidence, and one star turn after another couldn’t quit the set-up quickly enough. Some supporters were no doubt contemplating desertion too.
Peter Moores and his new-look team had no choice but to stop the rot – and it’s a mighty relief that they did.
The stats suggest fans should try not to get carried away though. In 2013’s international cricket calendar only two visiting teams won Test matches – both in Zimbabwe. And since the start of the decade, 35 of the 70 Test Series’ that have been played around the world have ended in a winning whitewash for the host nation. Victory on home turf should therefore be greeted with an element of caution.
That said, we’ve learned plenty about England’s cricket team these past few weeks, and here are some of my observations…
Captain Cook can lead us into the future
At 29, the England skipper might just have learned more about himself in the last month or so, than he has done in his entire career. Looking devoid of self-belief at the crease and with frenzied pundits queuing up to slam his captaincy style, the out of form opener was probably just one more bad innings and defeat away from telling his country to stuff it.
Thank goodness he didn’t. Having made three big scores in his last four innings, and leading the side with the sort of astute captaincy that’s silenced his critics, Cook has re-established himself as the leader of his country. The guy is made of strong mettle.
The next generation of English cricket stars made their mark against India, and have given supporters reason to believe the side can reclaim the Ashes in 2015.
The pick of the bunch was batsmen Gary Ballance. Stubborn yet surprisingly stylish, the 24-year-old’s three centuries this summer have boosted his Test match average to over 60.
New wicket keeper Jos Buttler, 23, is also a shining light. He arrived on the scene with a reputation for slogging the ball in one-day cricket, but scores of 85, 70 and 45 have proved he has cool-headed maturity to his game too.
And then there’s Moeen Ali. Picked as a batsman that could turn his arm over for a spot of occasional spin, the rookie took 19 wickets in the series, including a couple of match-winning spells that predecessor Graeme Swann would have been proud of.
These three should be here to stay.
A terrific tandem bowling attack
James Anderson and Stuart Broad are bowling better than ever, and proved against the Indians that in favourable conditions they can be the most dangerous pace duo on the planet.
Anderson – on the verge of breaking Sir Ian Botham’s all-time Test wickets record – makes the ball talk with his swing and intelligent variation, while Broad offers pace, bounce and intimidation aplenty.
If these two are fit, England will always have a chance.
Two weak links
While the balance of the starting XI is good, England can still improve in two key positions.
First, I sense they need to find a more talented opener than Sam Robson. I’m loathed to criticise a player that’s so new to the international arena (and he has chipped in with big scores) but at times Robson has laboured badly at the crease. Yorkshire’s gifted Adam Lyth may be a better long-term bet.
Chris Woakes is the other player who finds his position under threat. He’s performed OK with bat and ball, but at Test level I’m unconvinced he can do either job with enough distinction. Moving forwards I feel Chris Jordan is the most natural all-rounder, and that Woakes should be replaced by a top line bowler. The rapid Steve Finn possibly deserves a second chance in 2015.
Prospects for 2015
Test cricket now takes a backseat until next April, as the Three Lions concentrate on the one-day game in readiness for the Cricket World Cup.
When Cook’s side do return to the Test arena, they’ll tour the West Indies, and play a home series against New Zealand, before the Aussies arrive in Blighty for yet another summer of Ashes fever.
Between now and then, England’s on-song batters must prove they can handle quicker bowling attacks than the powder-puff Indians, as well as unearthing another wicket taker who can turn a match on it’s head if Anderson and Broad aren’t at their inspirational best
There’s work to be done, but Cook’s Class of 2014 have earned the right to look forward to 2015 with trust, not trepidation.
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