A good season for England

THERE was no dearth of drama in the five-Test series between England and South Africa, what with fortunes see-sawing.

K. SRIKKANTH

Andrew Flintoff, who has matured as a batsman, is presented a trophy by Richie Benaud after the second Test against South Africa for scoring a century. He has also come on a lot as a bowler. — Pic. TOM SHAW/GETTY IMAGES-

THERE was no dearth of drama in the five-Test series between England and South Africa, what with fortunes see-sawing. Eventually, the series ended in a blaze of glory for the home team, that managed to level the series at The Oval after the Proteas had got nearly 500 runs in the first innings.

Perhaps, neither side enjoyed the kind of superiority that would have allowed it to dominate the series. There were weaknesses in both the sides that actually resulted in the series becoming exciting.

The series concluded amidst much celebration in the English camp with Alec Stewart, in the final Test of an illustrious career, and in front of his home crowd, being chaired by his team-mates. It was just the kind of a finish to a career that every cricketer would dream about.

This has been a memorable summer for England. First, the Englishmen came from behind to score a 2-1 series win over Pakistan in the limited overs series.

Then, Zimbabwe was brushed aside in the Test series. There was more to cheer for the Englishmen when the side got the better of South Africa in the final of the triangular ODI series that also involved Zimbabwe.

In the Test series against the Proteas, England twice fell in arrears, but bounced back each time to finally share the honours. One of the better seasons, surely, for England in a long time.

This has been a season too when English cricket has been in some turmoil. There was the resignation of longstanding England captain Nasser Hussain after the first Test, and this was not really the most ideal of things to happen in the initial stages of a series.

Though Michael Vaughan had captained England, with success too, in the ODIs, he must have felt the pressures of Test cricket, where the demands on a captain are quite different really and harder to cope with. It was baptism by fire for Vaughan.

There were other setbacks for England. Experienced paceman Darren Gough made a comeback from a serious injury, but he soon realised that the rigours of Test cricket were proving too much for a body that had taken years of pounding.

Gough's pace partner Andrew Caddick was on the injured list too, which meant England had to rework on its pace attack. James Anderson was sharp and could swing the ball, but he was erratic. Steve Harmison was quick on occasions, but far too wayward to be a consistent threat. James Kirtley, a skidder of sorts, did not inspire too much confidence despite his moments of success and there was an element of doubt about his action as well.

Graeme Smith, the South African skipper, began with a bang, scoring double centuries in the first two Test matches. His form then fell away and his team too let slip the initiative. — Pic. STU FORSTER/GETTY IMAGES-

England required someone with the old-fashioned virtues of line, length and control, and in this context, I feel the selection of Martin Bicknell for the final two Tests was a masterstroke. The Surrey paceman may have lost much of his pace, but he did lend the much-needed solidity to the attack. Bicknell is tall, gets close to the stumps, and with a high arm action swings the ball away from the right-hander. And when got his deliveries to straighten, the left-handed South African captain Graeme Smith, in prolific form in the first two Tests, was in a fair amount of trouble.

Bicknell played an important part in the England win at The Oval, as did Harmison, who got his radar right for once. However, the hero of the series, from an English perspective has to be Andrew Flintoff.

During the series, Flintoff showed, both with the bat and the ball, that he could change the course of matches. The sign of a truly influential all-rounder. The Lancashire lad had always been a big striker of the ball, but had been guilty of throwing away his wicket away in the past.

In this series, Flintoff batted with a lot more maturity. He bowled with a fair bit of venom as well, getting the ball to seam and bounce. If he stays fit, Flintoff, will be the key man in the English ranks for years to come.

Marcus Trescothick delivered when it mattered and Graham Thorpe, putting his personal problems behind him, made a glorious comeback with a century. However, the English middle-order still wears an unsettled look.

Michael Vaughan had some difficult moments as captain during the series, and appeared to lack the aggression of Nasser Hussain, but then, in the climactic phase of the series, he did appear to be picking up the threads.

His opposite number, Graeme Smith, started with a bang, producing two double hundreds in the first two Tests and leading South Africa to a famous victory at Lord's. However, a drop in his own form apart from a lack of consistency in batting, cost the Proteas the series win.

Opener Herschelle Gibbs and No. 3 Gary Kirsten were among the runs, but the South African middle-order appeared wobbly throughout, consistency being the elusive factor. In fact, it was Shaun Pollock and the tail that bailed South Africa out time and again, and this was hardly a good sign.

In the South African bowling, the explosive speed and thrust of an Allan Donald in his heyday was lacking. The pacy Makhaya Ntini put in a whole-hearted effort at Lord's, but appeared to run out of steam as the series progressed.

Pollock, Kallis and Hall had their moments, but I felt the Proteas lacked variety in their pace attack. For instance, a left-arm paceman could have proved handy.

The Proteas may have only themselves to blame for letting the advantage slip. South Africa is still an extremely combative side in any form of cricket, but lacks the ruthlessness of the Aussies. As for England, things are looking better. The side is now fourth in the ICC Test championship, with the third-placed New Zealand well within reach. Probably the talks of a revival in English cricket were not so far-fetched after all.