x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

England's five steps to Test cricket summit

The world¿s worst team just 12 years ago, England are looking certain to become No 1. The National finds out how that happened.

Alastair Cook runs between wickets on his way to 294 at Edgbaston yesterday. The England opener has said his team are seldom satisfied with the way they play and constantly look to get better.
Alastair Cook runs between wickets on his way to 294 at Edgbaston yesterday. The England opener has said his team are seldom satisfied with the way they play and constantly look to get better.

According to Gautam Gambhir, the opening batsman for the soon-to-be deposed world No 1 Test side, India, reaching the summit of the game is very easy. It is staying there which is the hard part.

Sustaining their spell at the top is one of the stated aims of this England side, but scaling the heights in the first place was hardly easy.

Back in 1999, England were officially the world's worst team. As recently as a year and a half ago they were fifth in the rankings.

So where has it all gone so right? Here are five key areas.

1 Selfish batsmen

Much is made in cricket about being a "team player" as a batsman, but it is almost as much of a fiction as the "spirit of the game".

Rare are the occasions when a batsman will have to give his wicket away while chasing quick runs to set up a declaration. For 99 per cent of the time, if a batsman plays for himself, it will be just what his team require.

Laying a high value on their wicket has been a key part of England's emergence as a batting unit, and the coming of Jonathan Trott as an international cricketer has been no coincidence.

Trott only needed two Test matches to prove he had what it takes to succeed on this stage. Forget the century on debut to win the Ashes - more telling was his second innings 69 in the drawn opening game of the following tour to South Africa.

During that innings, Kevin Pietersen went for one of his dicey runs while batting with him, but Trott made sure it was not his wicket which would be sacrificed for the run out.

A junior player, playing in just his second match, could have been cowed.

Instead he stood and showed the biggest star of English cricket that he would not yield. That was the sort of selfishness England required.

2 Greediness

On a similar theme, a century is no longer the definition of achievement for an England batsman.

Thanks to the input of Graham Gooch, their batting coach, players who do not aim for "daddy-hundreds" - 150 and above - need not apply.

"We are not satisfied with what we have done," Alastair Cook, the opening batman, said, when his side closed day two of this Test on 456 for three, and with his own personal tally on 182 not out. "We never will be."

Cook went on to score 294 runs before being dismissed.

What Cook said was music to the ears of Gooch, no doubt, and a strong message of intent to everyone else. England's ruthlessness with the bat has Gooch's fingerprints all over it.

In the past 10 innings, they have scored more than 600 three times, and have only failed to pass 300 in one completed innings.

India, with Sachin Tendulkar et al, have yet to reach a total of 300 in this series.

The England batsmen have made six double centuries between them since the start of 2010. Previous to that, there were only six over the course of 15 years.

3 The new Gilchrist

In cementing the Australian side of the 2000s as one of the all-time greats, Adam Gilchrist redefined the role of the wicketkeeper-batsman. There ended the debate as to whether just being a good gloveman was enough. Big runs, made at important times, became a prerequisite of the wicketkeeper's job description.

History is unlikely to shine quite as brightly on Matt Prior as it did on Gilchrist, but the role he has played during England's march to the top of the rankings has had echoes of the great man.

With Gilchrist batting at No 7, there seemed little point in bothering to get the first five Australian wickets in the innings.

As Ian Bell said after Prior's rapid 73 took the Trent Bridge Test further away from India, there is probably no other No 7 in world cricket at present who opponents would less like seeing when they have a side five for plenty.

4 Pace battery

One thing England have seldom wanted for, even in the bad old days, is good seam bowlers.

Even by those standards they have hit a particularly rich seam in recent times.

They famously won the 2005 Ashes with four pace bowlers. To reach the top of the world, they have relied on just three at any one time, but the stock of players vying for each of those places is vast.

The men in possession - James Anderson, Tim Bresnan and Stuart Broad - know they have ready backup snapping at them. Any one of Chris Tremlett, Steven Finn, Graham Onions and Ajmal Shahzad could step into the breach tomorrow.

They also know they have their support, however. Onions and Bresnan, who both might have had designs on his place at the time, each tweeted a variation on the theme of class being permanent when Broad silenced his doubters in the Lord's Test against India.

5 Shrinking field

It feels harsh to want to detract from England's achievement of reaching the summit of the game, but few of their triumphs over the past two years have felt anywhere near as good as that 2005 Ashes win did.

In large part, that was due to the fact that back then, they had not won the little urn in ages, and success was not as common as it is now.

It is also fair to say that victory came against a great side, and there are precious few of them around any more.

India have been pitiful in defence of their own world No 1 ranking. Australia were crushed in this winter's Ashes. Pakistan's troubles extend far beyond the boundary - and they are not much good inside it in the five-day game, either. Other than South Africa, the rest are nowhere.

England can only beat who is put in front of them. Sadly for Test cricket, there is not much competition out there to test them.

pradley@thenational.ae

 


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