(A kind of a sequel to ‘A good loss…’)
As India was serenely marching towards a hopefully progressive loss to Sri Lanka in the test series yesterday, England compounded their worries by winning the dead rubber test match against South Africa. Well as Kevin Pietersen captained and batted, well as Steve Harmison bowled (and batted) and well as England turned in a good all-round performance, the Pyrrhic victory can, if not seen in the proper light, cause more harm than good for England. For England’s selectors might well be tempted to brush some of the niggles in the team composition under the carpet and start seeing visions of yet another glorious victory parade at end of the next season.
Unlike the Indian team, this English team perhaps does not seem to need a large scale transformation. But there are some areas they need to watch out for, if they want a repeat of mirabilis 2005 and not of horribilis 2006-07.
The first act England has to get right is their thinking on the wicket-keeper’s slot. Sure, people like Adam Gilchrist and Kumar Sangakkara have given us the concept of the wicket-keeper-as-specialist- batsman. But let’s not forget that both of them (and Mark Boucher, another more than useful bat) are wonderful glovemen. The first job of the wicket-keeper is behind the wickets, and if he’s not good enough for that, a few runs in front of the wicket doesn’t compensate. Moreover, if the wicket-keeper has a bad day on the field, it is bound to reflect on his batting. Ask Tim Ambrose, Matt Prior and the few dozen others who turned up in English colours in the last few years. The flip side is true as well – a good performance behind the stumps can make the ‘keeper bat better. Look at Prasanna Jayawardene’s brilliance behind the stumps in the test series against India, and his then more than useful batting at a crucial time in the third test.
Now that we have had our fill of his grand appealing and not-so-grand fielding, it’s time to focus on Monty Panesar’s day job. While his performance has not been particularly bad, the fact remains that he does not seem to be a strike bowler, a bowler capable of singlehandedly winning test matches. Good for a few good spells, good for the odd wicket, but not much more than that. A glance at his records suggests that he has a problem bowling well in both innings of a test match. Apart from the one 10-for against the West Indies and the eight wicket haul against Pakistan (interestingly both at Manchester), there has rarely been a game when Monty has shone equally well in both innings. And in most test matches, you have to dismiss the opposition twice to win.
The England top order, in the absence of Michael Vaughan and the return to form of Paul Collingwood looks misleadingly settled. Pietersen is good as they come and Alastair Cook is looking settled, even if unable to convert enough half-centuries into centuries (his fielding inconsistency is a bit jarring as well). But in Andrew Strauss and Ian Bell one senses a soft spot in the top order. Strauss has never been the same after the selectors kept misusing him as a stand-in captain. (Even his success in that role seemed to make things more uncomfortable for all concerned, including himself.) The self-doubt, and the corresponding uncertainty of footwork and shot selection was well capitalised on by South Africa and the Aussies wouldn’t need much invitation to do likewise. Ian Bell needs to be a bit more than just a useful scrapper – apart from those three centuries in the 2006 series against Pakistan, his other five test centuries have been too far apart from each other. And whispers of his being a flat wicket bully are mounting. His coming in at No. 3 can put pressure on Nos. 4 and 5.
The English bowling line-up also presents a deceptively potent face. But James Anderson and Steve Harmison are both loose cannons, so the best England can hope for is that one of them fires in a match. (And don’t bet on Harmy going off kilter again.) The steadiness of a Ryan Sidebottom complements them well, one only hopes he sustains his momentum and keeps himself fit. And then there are the all-rounders.
I can’t remember when England had last had the luxury of two all-rounders (no, Ashley Giles was not an all-rounder, he could barely bowl), but in Stuart Broad and Andrew Flintoff (hopefully fully fit) they have that potential now. Except that the role definitions of these two blokes needs to be clearly charted out. Broad, notwithstanding Geoffrey Boycott’s irrational exuberance in comparing him with Sir Garfield Sobers, is clearly a bowling all-rounder – bowl about 20 overs a day and support the late middle order with some useful runs. If he starts focusing on those 50s and 100s as a batsman, he’ll be heading back to Nottingham sooner than he’d want to. As for Freddie, KP can’t afford to do the Vaughan and overbowl this man. Freddie can be talismanic to the team, and hence needs to be preserved. He’s not quite a Kallis in terms of stamina in both roles, so he needs to be used as a high-class bits and pieces player, oxymoronic as that expression may sound. Except in exceptional cases, get him to bowl about 15 overs a day and score some useful 50s at No. 6.
The good thing for England is that they seem to have cottoned on to a good captain, a captain who deserves his place in the team, who is perhaps the best player in the team, who is aggressive and who can take control of a game. He may not have a history of being a people’s person, but if he manages to get his aggression and performance to rub off on the others, he would’ve done his job. And yes, it will help if the Englishmen don’t train him to become too English in his approach. The South African in him is important if England want to benefit from his captaincy.