The England Cricket Team - Where now for the 'World No. 1' side?
Well that was quick wasn’t it? Having taken the top test side ranking in August after a 4-0 whitewash of India, England could well find themselves down to 2nd after a mere three matches. Following their abysmal 3-0 series defeat to Pakistan, second-placed side South Africa can overtake them with a 3-0 win over New Zealand in March. England do not play another test match until after that series and so can only watch on as the Proteas look to take the ICC ‘massive shiny mace thing’ that was presented to England as the number one side in the summer.
So how do England recover and move on from such a disappointing series? The bowling department at least can head to Sri Lanka in March with some pride left intact. Monty Panesar in particular impressed on his return to the side. He finished as the highest wicket taker with 14 at an average of 21.47, despite only playing two of the three tests.
To outbowl Graeme Swann, who came into the series as the number one spinner in the world, was an excellent achievement. Not only has Panesar’s control improved but so has his consistency and his temperament. To bowl 52 overs in one innings, as he did in the second innings of the final test match, takes a great deal of patience and control and Panesar was rewarded with a well-deserved five wicket haul. He has surely now convinced the England management to play two spinners in the remaining 6 test matches on the subcontinent in 2012.
It was not the bowlers who were responsible for the poor performance in the UAE though. The England batsman could not cope with the mystery of Saeed Ajmal or even, it seemed, the conventional spin bowled by Abdur Rehmann and Mohammed Hafeez. The consistently poor performances from the England batsmen came as a shock given their phenomenal form in the last months. This is a side that averaged 433 per innings from the beginning of the Ashes in November 2010 to the end of the India series in August 2011. To average 433 across 17 innings is a phenomenal effort.
Yet against Pakistan this world class batting outfit crumbled without any significant resistance, averaging less than 200 in their six innings of the series. The middle order, in particular, were in abject form. Across a combined 18 innings, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell and Eoin Morgan scored less than 200 runs. Pietersen and Morgan averaged 11 and 13 respectively while Ian Bell averaged just 8 runs per innings. When you have a worse average than James Anderson at the end of a series, you know something is wrong.
But here then is a significant weakness of the England side. While the bowling department has tremendous strength in depth, the batting department looks incredibly bare behind the first team players. Of course, this is not an issue when Ian Bell averages over 100, as he has done over the last year, and Kevin Pietersen averages over 80. But when these players suffer the major loss of form that occurred in the UAE, who is there pushing to replace them? Eoin Morgan has yet to convince his critics that he is a test match player but then neither has Ravi Bopara who is the only other real candidate for a place.
There is no doubt that there are a number of young, highly rated players coming through and a few of them will have a chance to shine in the one-day series, after Johnny Bairstow and Jos Buttler were in the squad announced earlier in the week. Others such as Ben Stokes and James Taylor have also been tipped for a bright England future. Of those four, Ben Stokes is incredibly injury-prone, carrying a finger injury during the summer that prevented the all-rounder from bowling during his ODI appearances for England against India while sustaining a serious injury at the end of that has prevented him playing any cricket for the past six months. Jos Buttler is a highly rated one-day player but averages only 32 in four-day cricket. Johnny Bairstow and James Taylor are the two most likely candidates to push for a test place in the near future, both averaging over 45 in four-day domestic cricket. The two youngsters have both just completed a tour of the subcontinent with the England Lions and like their test-playing counterparts, have struggled significantly, with Taylor averaging 24 and Bairstow just 16 from their 10 innings; form that hardly merits a test place.
With the lack of strength in depth in the batting department, England find their hands tied with regard to selection. Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen have proved their worth to England many times in the past and are unlikely to be dropped. Eoin Morgan may find himself the sacrificial lamb in Sri Lanka as it would send the wrong message to turn up and play exactly the same batsmen who failed so miserably against Pakistan.Ravi Bopara may once again find himself with an opportunity, possibly his last opportunity to prove he is worth a place in the England test side.
Whoever England decide to pick for the Sri Lanka series, it is vital that the batsman perform and gain confidence ahead of what could be a highly significant series between the first and second ranked test teams in the summer as England take on South Africa. It remains to be seen which way round those teams will be ranked.