Geared towards the Ashes

The Champions Trophy scheduled before the Ashes seems to have been completely forgotten. It’s now all about the Test series against Australia, and the English fans are already sniffing a genuine chance of a victory. By N. Sudarshan.

This is the Ashes year. Every little noise that emanates in the lead-up to the bi-yearly cricketing extravaganza will be probed by both the media and fans — more so by the English — to locate something that could echo through the series. Every on-field or off-field activity will have an Ashes context attached to it.

So when England met New Zealand over five consecutive Tests (three away and two at home) one could hope for a lot of nitpicking.

That there is a competition scheduled prior to the Ashes which is next only to the World Cup and will present England with a chance to win its first ever global 50-over tournament seems to have been completely forgotten. Even to the extent that some are not happy with the ace off-spinner, Graeme Swann — who returned to the squad for the two-Test series at home after an elbow surgery — being included in the Champions Trophy squad. The reason being that he is more important to the Test team. Understandably so, particularly when the Barmy Army sniffs a genuine chance of an Ashes victory.

Adding credence to this were England’s many pluses that emerged from the home series. The tremendous bowling of James Anderson and Stuart Broad in the first Test, Swann’s form and the accompanying fitness that helped him to a 10-wicket haul in the second, Steven Finn’s return to his fiery self, and the batting of Joe Root, captain Alastair Cook and Jonny Bairstow.

But there were some things that would throw up a few worrisome faces as well and principal among them were Nick Compton’s form and Cook’s captaincy.

From the heights of being named one of the five Wisden Cricketers of the Year, Compton seems to have lost an enormous amount of goodwill generated for a year or so. So much so that his two hundreds in Dunedin and Wellington not so long ago no longer seem to occupy public memory.

His four innings in the two Tests have brought him 39 runs. Coupled with Root’s and Bairstow’s impressive form in the middle-order and Kevin Pietersen’s impending return from knee injury, Compton seems to be on shaky ground.

“He’s struggled in these few Tests, certainly,” said coach Andy Flower. “The Ashes is quite a long way away. Let’s allow the dust to settle on this series. Then we’ll chat about the line-up and the conditions and the opposition.

“He’s got to go away, get back into form and score some heavy runs for Somerset. He goes back into a couple of one-day games. Hopefully, the one-day games will be good for him. He can go out and enjoy hitting the ball. That will be the catalyst for him going into the first-class game feeling confident.”

The option of promoting Root to open the innings also seems to be on the cards. But both Cook and Flower did admit that ringing in a change at such an important slot would constitute ‘a risk’ and Compton has exactly 12 innings before the Ashes starts to make this a no-option.

Captain Cook, as always, excelled with the bat scoring his 25th hundred. He now averages 71 as a captain. This does bring in extra confidence to try some new things and make bolder moves. However, his decision at Headingly not to enforce the follow-on against a side, as one journalist put it, ‘which had lost 20 wickets in 66.1 overs in its previous two Test innings’ was baffling.

Then he delayed his declaration until after lunch on Day Four in spite of England being ahead by more than 400 runs and the weathermen forecasting that the fifth day could be severely curtailed by rain. It was proved right too. Only 45 minutes play was possible before lunch and it was only at 3 p.m. that play resumed. But it was long enough for England to secure victory by 247 runs after picking up the final four wickets.

“The result definitely vindicates the decision,” Cook said after the match. “There is absolutely no doubt about that at all. To win by 250 runs is a good win and in just over three days cricket effectively, it is an outstanding performance. You are judged as a captain on results. In this game we have won by 247 runs.” Fair point. But come the Ashes, similar decisions will be dissected much more minutely should the result be in any way unfavourable.

England went to New Zealand in March fancying its chances and hoping for an impressive run-up to the Ashes. But a resolute New Zealand, amidst all the ignominy surrounding its ranking, continued to punch above its weight and was in with a chance to secure a series victory till the final delivery of the final Test in Auckland.

A false start for the English ended with a bang — a 2-0 series victory in the return leg at home. However, it was not without holes, but the only respite is that they are not gaping enough and England has decent options to fill them up.

SCOREBOARD

England v New Zealand, 2nd Test, Headingley, Leeds (May 24-28, 2013); Result: England won by 247 runs.

England 1st innings: A. Cook c Brownlie b Bracewell 34, N. Compton c Brownlie b Southee 1, J. Trott c McCullum b Wagner 28, I. Bell c McCullum b Williamson 30, J. Root c McCullum b Boult 104, J. Bairstowc McCullum b Boult 64, M. Prior c Taylor b Southee 39, S. Broad c McCullum b Boult 0, G. Swann (not out) 26, S. Finn b Boult 6, J. Anderson c & b Boult 0, Extras: (b-9, lb-7, w-5, nb-1) 22. Total: 354.

Fall of wickets: 1-11, 2-67, 3-67, 4-146, 5-270, 6-279, 7-286, 8-345, 9-354.

New Zealand bowling: Boult 22-4-57-5, Southee 26-6-76-2, Wagner 23-4-73-1, Bracewell 19-3-83-1, Williamson 9-0-49-1.

New Zealand 1st innings: P. Fulton c & b Finn 28, H. Rutherford c Bell b Finn 27, K. Williamson lbw b Swann 13, R. Taylor b Finn 6, D. Brownlie b Swann 2, M. Guptill b Swann 1, B. McCullum c Prior b Broad 20, T. Southee lbw b Broad 19, D. Bracewell c Bell b Swann 1, N. Wagner b Anderson 27, T. Boult (not out) 24, Extras: (lb-5, w-1) 6. Total: 174.

Fall of wickets: 1-55, 2-62, 3-72, 4-79, 5-81, 6-82, 7-119, 8-122, 9-122.

England bowling: Anderson 7.4-2-34-1, Broad 15-2-57-2, Finn 12-3-36-3, Swann 9-1-42-4.

England 2nd innings: A. Cook c Southee b Williamson 130, N. Compton c Rutherford b Williamson 7, J. Trott c McCullum b Wagner 76, I. Bell c Guptill b Williamson 6, J. Root c Guptill b Wagner 28, J. Bairstow (not out) 26, M. Prior (not out) 4, Extras: (b-8, lb-1, w-1) 10. Total (for 5 wkts decl.) 287.

Fall of wickets: 1-72, 2-206, 3-214, 4-249, 5-268.

New Zealand bowling: Boult 2-1-2-0, Southee 15-4-51-0, Wagner 17-3-67-2, Williamson 24-4-68-3, Bracewell 13-3-49-0, Guptill 5-0-41-0.

New Zealand 2nd innings: P. Fulton c Bell b Broad 5, H. Rutherford c Root b Swann 42, K. Williamson lbw b Swann 3, R. Taylor b Swann 70, D. Brownlie c Bell b Finn 25, M. Guptill c Trott b Swann 3, B. McCullum c & b Broad 1, T. Southee c Trott b Swann 38, D. Bracewell c Bell b Swann 19, N. Wagner (not out) 0, T. Boult c Prior b Anderson 0, Extras: (b-2, lb-11, w-1) 14. Total: 220.

Fall of wickets: 1-21, 2-40, 3-65, 4-144, 5-153, 6-154, 7-162, 8-218, 9-220.

England bowling: Anderson 11.3-4-28-1, Broad 11-3-26-2, Swann 32-12-90-6, Finn 19-5-62-1, Root 3-2-1-0.