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Sunday, 24 January 2010

BBC - BBC Sport: Ben Dirs: Draw can't disguise England frailties

Draw can't disguise England frailties
Post categories: Cricket

Ben Dirs | 20:12 UK time, Sunday, 17 January 2010

If, as is often said of Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United, a good side is one which manages to avoid defeat while not playing to its full potential, then England's 1-1 Test series draw in South Africa should be considered a success.

Soundly beaten in Johannesburg and forced to cling on for dear life in Centurion and Cape Town, future statisticians will pore over the series averages with wonder.

While five of South Africa's batsmen averaged between 39 and 61, four of England's averaged in the twenties. And while England's top wicket-taker Graeme Swann took 21 scalps at 31.38, five Proteas bowlers took their wickets more cheaply.

Averages, schmaverages, you may well be muttering: the bottom line is England managed not to lose a series that, in the recent past, they almost certainly would have. Against a side, you might add, who are second in the Test rankings, and which boasts the nastiest pace attack in world cricket.

I would argue, however, that the series result is not the bottom line, but that the bottom line, in an Ashes year at least, is how the side is shaping for the future. And if you agree on my bottom line, then you will no doubt agree that, while it is heartening that England have grown a backbone, they will need more than guts to match their oldest enemy next winter.

It was Jim Laker who said "the aim of English cricket is, in fact, to beat Australia", and while much has changed since Laker was weaving his magic for England back in the 1950s, his old adage still applies.

England's Jonathan Trott struggled to deal with South Africa's pace bowlers

Playing like they did against South Africa, England are likely to be beaten handily by an Australian side bent on terrible revenge.

England's players are like the planets of an orrery: when one is passing close to the sun and in decent nick, another will inevitably be orbiting on the dark side and struggling for form - and so the cycle continues with each passing series. The planets will need to be perfectly aligned against the Aussies, or England could get buried.

Captain Andrew Strauss, so assured in 2009, managed only 170 runs against the Proteas, while Matt Prior, who looked to be coming into full bloom against Australia last summer, withered when exposed to South Africa's no-holds-barred attack.

Jonathan Trott, who many thought was the answer to England's problems at number three following his Ashes-winning performance at The Oval last August, experienced a chastening tour of his homeland, while Kevin Pietersen also struggled.

Critics of Pietersen seem to forget that he has only recently returned from a long-term injury, and facing Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn is not the ideal way to bat yourself into form. There should be cheaper runs up for grabs against Bangladesh, home and away, before Pakistan provide a sterner test at the end of the summer.

Ian Bell, on the other hand, had a decent series, although the Warwickshire man seems to be stuck in a vicious circle only partially of his own making: on the back of 313 runs batting at six, there are those who will be calling for him to replace Trott at three, but we've already seen what happens when Bell bats at three, so it's perhaps best to leave him where he is.

Pietersen, if anyone could persuade him, might be a better fit, although one rough series does not make Trott a bad player. England would be right to persevere with him at first wicket down, as far as the tour of Bangladesh at least.

As it stands, England's batting cannot be trusted, and were it not for Paul Collingwood's contributions, Strauss's team would almost certainly have lost the Test series in South Africa.

Strauss and coach Andy Flower have little to fall back on, with only Michael Carberry, who scored a stack of runs for Hampshire last summer, making a really convincing case for inclusion.

Certainly, and as the BBC's cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew has already pointed out, England cannot afford the luxury of playing five front-line batsmen against top-draw opposition, which only increases the pressure on the bowling.

While England's seam attack can sometimes be highly effective on English wickets, it is often rendered toothless abroad, where the Kookaburra ball holds sway everywhere except India, and bowlers can generate less swing as a result.

In Johannesburg, Morkel and Steyn illustrated perfectly the value of a few miles-per-hour of extra pace, and the worry, with an Ashes series on the horizon, is that England don't have anyone express coming through. Swann has developed into a very useful cricketer, but England badly need some gas to complement his guile.

With so many rough edges in need of a polish, Strauss's decision to sit out the trip to Bangladesh will be debated ad nauseam.

Were most of his players in decent nick, then you could understand his decision to stay home and recharge the batteries. But Strauss will wave goodbye to a handful of men who are clearly struggling, and you might think he'd want to be by their side to monitor their progress and help nurse them back to form. It is, after all, his team.

Former skipper Michael Vaughan has spoken of the "bigger picture", ie. making sure Strauss is fit and mentally refreshed for the rather more taxing challenges in Australia.
But Bangladesh, as they are currently proving in a Test match at home against India, aren't the mugs many would have you believe.

Take a wrong turn in Chittagong or Mirpur, and England will have strayed so far from the bigger picture, they might struggle to find their way back in time for the Ashes.

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BBC - BBC Sport: Ben Dirs: Draw can't disguise England frailties

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