Is the England cricket team on an upward trend?

England’s Test series win away to world number one side South Africa is about as rare as they come these days.

Not since 2012 had England won a Test series away from home, and to do it against South Africa has led to all sorts of glamourous predictions for the future of England’s Test side.

Firstly, are England actually any good?

They have a top quality bowling attack, with Stuart Broad and James Anderson leading the line and Steven Finn, Ben Stokes plus Moeen Ali’s improving off-spin to call upon.

But their batting has long been a concern and still remains the gremlin in their line-up. Only captain Alastair Cook and number four Joe Root can truly be considered world-class, and there is a gaping hole beside Cook for the second opener’s spot.

Alex Hales is the most recent of eight men tasked with cementing a place alongside Cook but he has struggled for runs as his lazy technique outside off stump repeatedly sees him edge behind.

After a solid opening Test, Nick Compton has faded in his comeback series, while James Taylor’s fielding has been more impressive than his batting so far.

However, the lower order looks very promising with Stokes, Jonny Bairstow and Ali all capable of scoring fluently should the top order fail – which it regularly does.

The other problem for England is that they’ve beaten a South African side stripped of premier bowlers Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander.

Steyn is the best pacer in the world and scared England in Durban before his shoulder injury, while Philander provides accuracy and stifles the flow of runs. It would have been a much tougher series for England had those two been fit.

Add to that South Africa’s dismal thrashing in India and England should really have been expected to beat them.

There are problems internally too, with the team bereft of a suitable leader.

Hashim Amla started the series as skipper but was guilty of some embarrassing captaincy when Stokes plundered 258 in Cape Town and immediately stepped down after realising his ineptitude in a role he never really wanted.

That left AB de Villiers in charge and he is also reluctant to hold on to it any longer, especially with his potential Test retirement looming after this series.

Amidst the gloom, two shining lights for the Proteas have been Dean Elgar and Kagiso Rabada.

Elgar has shown himself to be a gritty competitor, in the same mould as a Mike Hussey or a Chris Rogers. His ability to repel Broad and Anderson was noteworthy but he did look vulnerable to the rising ball, especially when facing the bounce of Finn.

In Rabada, they have a young paceman of serious potential. At just 20 years old he already bowls at 90mph and has consistently threatened England’s batsmen on this tour with a sharp line and length.

Imagine Steyn, Rabada and Philander all steaming in and South Africa will be back in business very soon.

So, in answer to this blog’s title, yes, England are on an upward trend.

They have winnable battles with Pakistan and Sri Lanka this summer before a daunting trip to the sub-continent where they face India after a brief sojourn to Bangladesh.

Given their deficiencies against Pakistan in the UAE, they may struggle again with the same sort of slow, low, turning pitches they will encounter next winter.

But, for the moment, they have the best bowler in Test cricket – Stuart Broad. Number five, James Anderson, isn’t bad either.

Joe Root is also handily placed at number two in the Test batsman’s rankings, while the team as a whole remain sixth behind South Africa, India, Australia, Pakistan and New Zealand.

That will surely improve come the end of 2016 and into the Bangladesh tour, but it is against India – who are set to replace South Africa in top spot – where the yardstick lies.

The real upward trend will be set if England can gain a positive result in that series.

Then we’ll see whether all the hype surrounding the likes of Stokes and Broad can be justified.

Right now, there’s a lot to be cheery about if you’re an English cricket fan. Here’s hoping there’s plenty more where that came from.

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2015 Cricket World Cup Blog 3 – Could England win the World Cup?

Could England win the World Cup?

It’s a question that could be laughed off as ludicrous, optimistic or perhaps even imbecilic.

However, in just five days the World Cup will begin and so too will England’s campaign – against red-hot favourites and hosts Australia.

Given how hyped the build-up is towards any English sporting team in close proximity to a major tournament, is it too much to suggest that England could win the Cricket World Cup?

On paper at least, England have a chance.

Coach Peter Moores is starting to shape his side into a balanced, professional unit with both strength in-depth and the correct mix of emerging talent and established stars.

The most exciting of the talented players in England’s squad is Jos Buttler.

Buttler’s ability to play shots across 360 degrees mirrors the style of AB de Villiers, who is by far the world’s leading batsman at present.

Yet Buttler has a formidable journey to take if he is to morph into a cricketer capable of the destruction that de Villiers can wreak at will.

Not only that, his wicketkeeping skills must improve if he is to emulate de Villiers later in his career.

Aside from Buttler, England’s coaching staff will be hopeful of a polished display from opener Moeen Ali, who looks the perfect foil for Ian Bell, a player most at home when quietly accumulating runs at the top of the order.

Moeen is not a batsman of maniacal aggression, but his timing of the ball is majestic.

The Worcestershire man has also drastically improved his spin bowling and is the leading long-term candidate to replace Graeme Swann in all forms of the game.

England’s celebrated bowling unit is also worthy of attention, with James Anderson spearheading an attack comprising of Stuart Broad, Steven Finn, Chris Woakes and Chris Jordan.

Throughout the winter ODIs against Sri Lanka, Australia and India, the bowlers outperformed the batsman in what has become an established trend over the past few seasons.

Worryingly for England it is a trend that extends to all forms of the game.

When Alastair Cook, a batsman who struggled for runs for a long period of time, departed as England captain it was Eoin Morgan who took over the reins.

Morgan’s own form at that time was patchy, but his batting record when captaining England previously was far better than when he wasn’t.

However, Morgan’s form has continued to decline into his tenure as permanent ODI captain.

After hitting 121 against Australia in the first match of a tri-series also involving India, Morgan was then dismissed for two ducks against their arch-rivals and only managed two runs against India, before another dismal duck during the defeat to Pakistan in England’s final warm-up game.

Despite Morgan’s scratchy form, he remains one of England’s most dangerous batsmen and could in the future form a mouthwatering alliance with the likes of Buttler if he remains in charge.

Morgan and Buttler are both ‘finishers’, meaning they can accelerate their scoring to win their side a match when chasing a total in excess of 300 runs.

Too often, though, they have been found out – particularly when chasing such lofty totals – and the World Cup will provide plenty of giddy run chases if England are to go deep into the latter stages.

If England were to be successful Down Under, plenty of work needs to be done on the mentality of the batsmen when chasing large totals – a fear of such run chases also seems to plague the England batsmen.

England’s middle order also needs to score runs faster, in greater volume and with a prudent balance of orthodox and unorthodox shot selection.

Perhaps they have been hindered by the ECB central contracts and the subsequent lack of experience in T20 cricket such as the IPL, where players such as de Villiers and MS Dhoni have both honed and revolutionised the skill set of a modern batsman.

World Cup victory may therefore be out of England’s reach, for now.

Looking at their squad, their recent performances and their ‘flair’ players they could reasonably expect to make the quarter-finals, but any result beyond that would be seen as a shock.

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England melt in Ashes obliteration

Before the 2013/14 Ashes series started, much of the build-up surrounded the scoreline by which England would win the series.

Sir Ian Botham was in typically boisterous mood, predicting a 5-0 whitewash for the visitors against an Australian side who, without attracting attention, deserved more respect than they had been afforded.

The warning signs were there during the summer. England’s 3-0 victory managed to sufficiently paper over the cracks of some flaky performances – and the foolhardy had not even noticed there were cracks in the first place.

Perhaps the most common theme of England’s summer Ashes campaign was that of the bowlers rescuing their side after some flatulent displays from the batsmen placed the team in precarious positions on more than one occasion.

Too many times England were reduced to 30-3 as captain Alastair Cook’s weakness outside off stump was badly exposed and Joe Root’s inexperience gravely exploited.

Australian seamer Ryan Harris was made to look world-class by some imprudent strokeplay, while Peter Siddle dismissed Kevin Pietersen more times than English fans care to remember.

On the face of it, Botham’s prediction was mischievous and unduly confident but few could have foreseen a dismantling of such gigantic proportions that would see his 5-0 prophecy inverted in Australia’s favour.

England started the series well and probably shaded the first day, reducing Australia to 132-6. Where the tide began to turn however, was when England were skittled for 136 to concede a first-innings deficit of 159 runs.

The two Australian innings had finished and started on the same day, such was the level of England’s collapse.

It was a collapse masterminded by the resurgent Mitchell Johnson, who terrorised England’s batsmen with vicious pace, bounce and accuracy.

The latter quality had always been Johnson’s nemesis. Too often he had the tendency to drift wide – at times embarrassingly so – and he was consequently taunted by the Barmy Army.

However, in this series he made them watch with great pain as he continued a rejuvenation which had begun in April in India. Playing for Mumbai Indians in the Indian Premier League, he delivered a string of highly impressive bowling performances.

He had finally been able to rid himself of the inconsistency which had plagued his game and was showing great control of line and length in partnership with his more renowned pace and bounce.

Johnson was suddenly the cricketer England feared he would one day become, but when the two sides met in Brisbane for the opening Test the visitors were hopelessly underprepared – and they never recovered.

The left-armer succeeded in mangling numerous English innings throughout the series, stripping batsmen such as Jonathan Trott – who later flew home due to mental health problems – and Matt Prior of their confidence and rampaging through the tailend with a cruel ease.

Johnson took 37 wickets during the series – two more than Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad combined – complete with three five-wicket hauls and having snared 15 more wickets than Ryan Harris, who with 22 also had a superb series.

While it’s easy to focus on the brutality of Johnson’s form, England’s dire batting should also be spotlighted.

The previous Ashes tour was an incredible one for England as they routinely pulverised the Australian attack. They even broke records, memorably when they scored 517-1 in the second innings of the first Test in 2010.

Cook (235*) and Trott (135*) were the men chiefly responsible, while Andrew Strauss weighed in with a century himself.

How that form changed in just three years. In the 2010/11 series, England were scoring centuries almost at will. In the 2013/14 series, they mustered just one – Ben Stokes’ 120 at Perth.

Stokes, competing in his debut Test series, was by far the brightest light of England’s gloomy tour. He scored 279 runs at an average of 34.87, which was just 15 runs less than the reckless Kevin Pietersen despite playing four of the five Tests.

Australia were better than England in every department, but especially so at the crease.

The top six series runscorers were all Australian, while David Warner’s tally of 523 runs was only four runs short of the combined tally of his counterparts Alastair Cook and Michael Carberry.

Australia also notched ten centuries against England’s one, which is the most telling statistic of all.

Much credit should go to Australia coach Darren Lehmann, who has transformed the fortunes of a side who had lost seven of their last nine Tests before Brisbane.

He has crafted a new generation of cut-throat cricket, instilled a winning mentality into his side and constructed a batting line-up capable of scoring fifties right down to numbers nine and ten.

That depth of batting was perfectly illustrated by Brad Haddin and Johnson. Haddin, in particular, was a constant hindrance. He scored 493 runs at an average of 61.62 and counter-attacked at crucial times.

Just when England were looking to bowl Australia out for around 200, up popped Haddin with a typically aggressive half-century to further demoralise the English attack.

Lehmann will also be pleased that from Haddin down to Nathan Lyon at 11, Australia’s tailenders plundered 874 runs between them.

When matched against England’s top three runscorers Kevin Pietersen (294); Michael Carberry (281) and Ben Stokes (279), Australia’s tailenders outscored them by 20 runs – a truly harrowing statistic for England coach Andy Flower to ponder.

Flower will be pondering plenty after this series, for as worrying as England’s reliance on their bowlers is their lack of emerging talent.

So far only Root and Stokes have made plausible claims to a regular starting spot, but the likes of Carberry and Jonny Bairstow have not flattered themselves in a dismal situation wherein a run of confident displays could have cemented their Test berth.

The fact that Graeme Swann, England’s second-most prolific Test spinner after Derek Underwood, retired after three Tests of this tour also turns attention towards England’s spin talents.

Scott Borthwick did himself no harm by taking 3-33 in the Sydney Test, but Monty Panesar has had a damaging tour having taken just three wickets in the four innings he has bowled.

Flower and Cook have a massive rebuilding process to go through and must analyse the gory details of the series, extracting any positives they can.  England’s golden era is over, but after this Ashes obliteration Australia’s is only just beginning.

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