From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.34 :: NO.27 :: Jul. 07, 2011
England, superbly led, packed with talented batsmen and intelligent bowlers and fielding as if their lives were at stake, will prove by August 22 that they are the fit and proper cricketers to lead the world rankings.
In the last couple of years they have grown into a strong side, driven on by a smiling captain who understands sportsmen, by a coach whose solemn face camouflages an active brain and with talent to spare.
So much is growing within this New England that they can beat India — perhaps by no more than 1-0 in the four-Test series — and set off towards global supremacy for the next half dozen years.
England not only have a talented and settled line-up but perhaps the best reserve strength since the mid-1950s when Peter May and his selection panels could leave out highly skilled men like Fred Trueman, Peter Loader, Frank Tyson, Tom Graveney, Willie Watson and a dozen more and still beat Australia and anyone else in sight.
Look at their skill base of 2011 in detail and you will see what I mean.
Andrew Strauss is a level-headed man, perhaps more suited to be the chief executive of a medium sized company and a better captain off the field than on. He relies on Flower for help in field settings, tactics and orders so that the sight of him nipping off to the pavilion for consultation talks will occur regularly but to good effect.
Don't see this on-off leadership as a sign of weakness. Strauss is in charge, the iron fist wrapped in velvet.
He and Flower make a remarkable pairing. I doubt if there is much shouting in that England dressing room but Strauss, by his pleasant, friendly manner, and Flower, by his quiet intensity, have shaped a team of winners. They have taken everything the Test arena offers and in sport that is all that matters.
It is not just on the field that they have been successful either. They have got Kevin Pietersen back on track; a major achievement for this great batsman was distressed by the manner of his sacking as captain. I bet it took a few arms round his shoulder to produce the innings against Sri Lanka this summer which indicated blistering runs to come.
They can take credit for the turnaround in Alastair Cook too. Who would believe that this once shy introvert would ever have a run record to match Bradman's, a shining personality and a role in advertising like a celebrity superstar?
Work by the pair — technical advice from Graham Gooch too — has proved to Cook that he can bat for himself and ensure England don't miss runs from the out-of-form Strauss.
They have also exhibited — and been rewarded for their faith in the young Irishman Eoin Morgan who can be a Test batsman in the place of Paul Collingwood and is almost as swift a fielder.
(We must mention the World XI nature of England. If the rules governing selection permit such choices, well, so be it; but Strauss, Pietersen, the run machine Jonathan Trott and Matt Prior were all born in South Africa and Morgan transferred to England from Ireland. When Ranji, Duleep and Pataudi played they had novelty value but now too many fans in this country ask why we cannot breed our own Test cricketers.)
Prior is again the subject of debate. He had a poor series against Sri Lanka — besides breaking a window in the Lord's pavilion, an iconoclast's crime — and his glove work deteriorated. Will England go for Steve Davies, Craig Kieswetter or the new boy Jonny Bairstow, who is backed by the voice of Boycott, a powerful tool?
Don't be shocked if Monty Panesar proves a force. He has moved to Sussex and shown signs he is capable of change. England will not drop Graeme Swann but they may play both, which will please the purists. Swann, after three years of great figures, is now a known quantity and needs help.
If there are two spinners — and neither has the least pretensions to the title all-rounder — England will not make full use of their greatest asset — fast bowling.
James Anderson, dipping the ball in late and moving it away even later, changing line and pace, is leader of the pack. He even takes his place at mid-off — a rest home for such a fine fielder — so that he can direct the younger men. It seems to be only yesterday he was an apprentice receiving his encouragement from Nasser Hussain, a master of rough words and impetuous decisions. Anderson is gentler in the new style set by Strauss-Flower but just as effective.
Do you remember Hussain's accolade for James Anderson — “You are the …… man!” — after one of his triumphs as a 20-year-old in Australia? Now the words are softer, from a man grown from the youth who has been through the mill.
Stuart Broad has been injured and disappointing, although the word on the pitch is that one day he may lead England, if he can control his temperament and avoid injury.
Tim Bresnan is taking his time recovering from a hamstring injury and Amjal Shahzad has lost some of his form with Yorkshire but they have all looked the part. Graham Onions probably should have played against Sri Lanka while Jade Dernbach, Finn and Chris Woakes are waiting in the wings. Now England are so strong, when will their prolonged trial begin?
Plenty of knowledgeable people would back Liam Plunkett of Durham and Lancashire's Sajid Mahmood if they were needed.
There are still problems for the selectors, led by Geoff Miller, another soft-spoken man, to solve. Dare they risk Prior at No. 6 and so fit in two spinners more easily? What happens if the Strauss run famine continues and the press — more fifth column than fourth estate in this country — begin to bay? Broad looked less than perfect; striving too hard and frustrated. Will they persevere with him or bring back Bresnan or Onions or Finn?
Whatever they do they will have one of the great England sides under their control; united, sure of themselves and backed by their recent run of form; with grounds filled to the brim by Englishmen who have become used to victories from the Formula One driver, Lewis Hamilton, and more recently golfer Rory McIlroy, given a swelling chorus of encouragement from the Barmy Army and anticipating even greater glory a year from now when the Olympics come to town.
Even though I know India to be packed with hardened veterans, greats from Tendulkar to Dravid and Dhoni and capable of beating anyone I could, if this was not a sporting contest between my country and our rivals, feel sorry for what they are about to experience.
If India emerge triumphant I will raise my hat to them for they will truly be the next best team in the world.
But I don't expect that to happen. England's time has come.
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