So here we go. The off-season is over, the thumping victories over India are now a distant memory. By the time you read this, Andrew Strauss and his team will have taken their first steps on a year-long journey that will hopefully see them bridge that great divide that separates the good from the great.
It is a journey that started nearly three years ago with a pitiful series defeat to an average West Indies side on some mind-numbingly flat wickets and has gone from strength to strength in the intervening time period. Sure, it hasn’t been all roses; the side had to dig very deep to escape South Africa with a draw in 2009 when we all crossed our fingers and prayed for Graham Onions’ forward defensive to prevail. However the manner with which the team has swept aside Australia and India (while both admittedly were far from their best) in the last twelve months has hinted at the swagger of a truly great side.
The bowling attack is about as strong as any team in recent memory in terms of sheer depth. A few years ago, journeymen such as Darren Pattinson were called up in desperation as England strived for wickets. Now, an England reserve attack could conceivably consist of Steven Finn, Chris Tremlett, Graham Onions and Monty Panesar, all proven test-quality bowlers. It’s not just in quantity that England’s strength lies though. The rise of Anderson, Broad and Bresnan, combined with the consistent excellence of Graeme Swann (comfortably the best spinner in world cricket) gives the team a relentless level of intensity with the ball.
England currently have three of the world’s top four bowlers, with a total of five in the top fifteen. By way of comparison, no other team has more than two. At a time of few truly great international bowlers, Strauss can easily boast the greatest wealth of riches in his arsenal.
With the willow, the story isn’t much different. South African exiles Pietersen and Trott (note to all Australian fans, yes we do realise they’re not English, but no we don’t particularly care) join the aesthetics of Ian Bell and the resilient Alistair Cook in the top ten batsmen, with Strauss and Prior, himself displaying something of the Adam Gilchrist lately, lurking not far below. The one man whose place appears to be in any form of doubt is new-boy Eoin Morgan.
In my mind, Morgan looks the modern incarnation of Neil Fairbrother (for those with a reasonable memory), a fine one-day player with an ice-cool head, although one that never quite made the step-up to tests. On the basis of statistics alone, this may seem unfair on the Irishman, with his average more than double Fairbrother’s, but there is something about him that doesn’t quite convince me that he is a top-level test batsman, as much as I would love to be proved wrong.
Should Morgan fail to take the sizeable chance that is likely to be afforded to him by the selectors, there is some debate as to who should replace him. Some of the more red-blooded commentators would like to see England go in with a fifth bowler, placing more trust and responsibility at the door of glovesman Matt Prior. On the face of it, this could be the solution. Prior averages more than 44 in tests, while Broad, Swann and Bresnan are all capable of useful lower-order knocks. Doubts remain though about the ability of all four of them to perform when the chips are down. A good average is only half the story in cricket, and in my mind that quartet have only sporadically produced when it mattered.
In the absence of a world-class all-rounder (and I’ll resist throwing Stuart Broad into this category at this stage in his career, despite my high hopes that he will become one), the other alternative then is to solidify the batting, ideally with a man who can put in a few overs with the old ball. My three tips for the role are the below:
James Taylor, 22, is surely the next cab off the rank in the selector’s minds. A beautiful stroke-player and captain of the England Lions (essentially the reserve team). Taylor has an astonishing track record, averaging a touch under 50 in three years at Leicestershire before hopping over the border to Notts for the new season. A mere five foot five inches tall, you’d be unwise to consider this a disadvantage though, given that it’s the same height as one Sachin Tendaulkar. Could Taylor become England’s own “little master”? Only time will tell.
Jonny Bairstow, 21, is a delightfully attacking wicketkeeper-batsman who won the Cricket Writers’ Club Young Cricketer of the Year in September (as Taylor did two years previously). He bludgeoned 41 in only 21 balls against India in a ODI before posting a 53 ball century during one of the warm-up games on the sub-continent. Test cricket might be a bridge too far for the Yorkshireman this year, having played under 50 first-class games, but he is worth keeping an eye on for the future.
James Hildreth, 27, is the forgotten man of English cricket. After a few hugely successful seasons with Somerset, it was seemingly between him and Jonathan Trott to see who replaced an out-of-sorts Ravi Bopara in the 2009 ashes. The selectors went with Trott, and the rest as they say is history, however it is surprising that Hildreth hasn’t had a look-in since. A recent loss of form has seen him fall behind younger rivals in the race to replace Paul Collingwood, but at 27 and with obvious talent, time is still on his side.
Despite the raft of exciting alternatives, I’m not advocating rash changes to the current line-up. After all, one of the most praise-worthy aspects of Andy Flower’s reign has been his faith in his players. The knives were out for Alistair Cook before England’s tour to Australia, while there was pressure on the selectors to drop Stuart Broad before the India series last summer. To say both bounced back would be an understatement, but it just goes to show how fine the line is between success and failure. This is a message England would do well to heed as they continue their quest for greatness.
Series victories against Pakistan, India and particularly South Africa would see them reach new heights, but defeat may relegate their place in the annals of history to flashes in the pan, like the 2005 side before them. It’s a huge year ahead, and one which will determine whether this is the best England team of our lifetime or maybe the best of our parents’.
by Harry Harland