Success for Sons of Pace

WE will assume for the purposes of this summary of the second Test between England and Zimbabwe that Zimbabwe are a normal Test team. It will keep us sane.


WE will assume for the purposes of this summary of the second Test between England and Zimbabwe that Zimbabwe are a normal Test team. It will keep us sane.

The victorious England team which beat Zimbabwe 2-0 in the npower Test series. _Pic. STU FORSTER/GETTY IMAGES-

In truth Zimbabwe are not even average. They lack a single Test-quality batsman, they have just one Test-class bowler and their fielding is ordinary. They must be compared with the Indians of 1959 who were defeated in five Tests — three times by an innings — and the New Zealanders of 1958 who lost four out of five. Three of those four defeats were by an innings.

I promise not to harp on these unsavoury facts, mainly so that I can concentrate on the improving play by England and the way they earned two successive wins by an innings, the first instance since they beat Allan Border's Australia in the last two Tests of 1985.

England will have none of these morbid reflections. The maulings by Australia in the last nine months have given them a greater understanding of their frailty and a stronger sinew.

At last, they have enough bowlers to stand up to the rigours of Test cricket and come out smiling as broadly as I saw Nasser Hussain and David Graveney, chairman of selectors, 24 hours after the match on the morning of what should have been the fourth day.

At least Duncan Fletcher, the coach, has seen that important fact. He announced after the Test that in the one-day international series that followed he would make an attempt to rotate his bowlers so that some of the pacemen would stay fresh for the Test series against South Africa which comes along in the last two months of the summer.

That is the importance of the success of the Sons of Pace as England's three fast bowlers were known by the end of this match. Each name ended in — son — Jimmy Anderson, Steve Harmison and, most successful of all, Richard Johnson — and between them they collected 18 of the 20 wickets.

Johnson was named man of the match in the debut Test that brought him two wickets with successive balls in his first over.

It was encouraging even when you take the lack of talent in the Zimbabwe side into account. Here we are, these three young musketeers were saying. We may be untried and untested, we have played only half a dozen Tests between us and we acknowledge that you will probably pick the injured quartet Darren Gough, Andrew Caddick, Andrew Flintoff and Matthew Hoggard ahead of us.

Don't worry though. If anyone of them loses form or fitness we are ready to step forward and if they fail to take wickets for any length of time we are also willing to try to fill their boots permanently.

Don't forget that Simon Jones, Chris Silverwood, Alex Tudor and Craig White are also recovering from injuries so that the Sons of Pace were less welcome at the party than any group of B-list celebrities. Yet they showed they could do the job, when and if required.

Anderson is the outstanding member of this squad of raw recruits. His skills were praised by Richie Benaud at the end of the Test. He made the point that Anderson has improved each time he has stepped out for England: in Australia, during the World Cup and in both the Zimbabwe Tests. His ease of approach, his composure and his consistency are the most impressive weapons in his armoury. Like most outswing bowlers Anderson rarely lets loose a bouncer; I suspect Hussain will have to insist that a steepling ball is required before Anderson sends one at a batsman's head.

Instead he serves up regular dishes of fast outswing and even quicker indip which will be good enough to dismiss many better batsmen than that turned out for Zimbabwe at Lord's and Chester-le-Street.

Fletcher, and Mike Watkinson, Anderson's coach at Lancashire, will have to guard against overstretching the lad, who will not be 21 until just before the first Test against South Africa but they will also have to ensure that he gets enough cricket to maintain his improvements.

His rise has been incredibly rapid: from the third team at his club Burnley last summer to 45th place in the world rankings at the end of his first Test series. He is a lad to be treasured as the finest young fast bowler to emerge on to the England scene since Fred Trueman burst through 52 years ago.

Harmison has improved too although he was undone by the hostile atmosphere that always greets the newcomer in Australia. Here, relaxed among his own Durham folk, he appeared to enjoy his Test cricket more than at any time since his debut. The more he settled into his work the easier it was to watch the incredible speed of his arm action that brings him both pace and lift from the pitch. Of course being 6ft 5in doesn't do him any harm, either.

Johnson, who was spotted by Ray Illingworth (the England supremo then) when he was only 20, has had to claw his way through injury and rejection to make it to the top. He did little with the ball — especially in comparison with Anderson who got it to move both ways — but he did bowl fast and straight to batsmen who were late on the stroke too often to count.

The disappointment for coach Fletcher — who wore the same stoical face that is almost his trademark the morning after the Test — was that the batting was below par.

It is all very well to make 416 runs in the first innings but this pitch was so low and slow that one of the major batsmen ought to have gone on to a century. The top six must have been told by the end of the match that if a newcomer at No. 7 and a tail-ender at No. 8 can make more than fifty then Alec Stewart's 68 should not have been the top score by seasoned England batsmen.

Anthony McGrath again showed that he can achieve one target that has too often been beyond Flintoff; he can put runs on the board. Flintoff has only three scores above fifty in 33 Test innings. McGrath has 150 runs from his first two Test knocks.

Of course there may be room for both of them in an England line-up: Vaughan, Trescothick, Butcher, Thorpe or the new boy Troughton, McGrath, Flintoff and Chris Read, the enterprising bat and wicket-keeper. You will notice I have not included Hussain although I have no wish to see him head for the sunset in a hurry.

He earned the right to choose his own moment to go by his leadership in the past few years.

This new line-up may be 18 months away when the selectors have accepted that Graham Thorpe is the best middle order batsman in the country and that his troubles are behind him. At this moment he is scoring runs with style and grace and England cannot afford to leave him out of their batting line-up.

He has experience, toughness and skill. The Australians will not daunt him, playing in Tests is almost second nature to him by now and his batting is as good as ever. He ought to be recalled but the selectors are naturally cautious. They have gambled and lost over Thorpe in the past; their reluctance to choose him is not surprising.

But if they are to reach out for the Ashes again they must either find a batsman of his calibre or bring him back.

Robert Key may not be good enough or he may not be lucky enough; I am not sure which. He has not made an impact and, like Graham Gooch 30 years ago, he may have to return to county cricket to complete his apprenticeship. He has lost weight but to convince the selectors that he knows what professional sportsmanship is about he must trim down even further.

Flintoff has achieved this goal; and both of them should look at Stewart if they want to know how Test cricketers keep fit and healthy.

I sat in the team hotel waiting for my dinner companion after the first day's play when Stewart arrived with a group of friends. "No, just a mineral water, and then it is off to bed,'' he told his host who pressed a glass of wine on him.

It was short of nine o'clock at night yet here was this Peter Pan of a player, 40 years old and, like his mentor Gooch, practising what he has preached for years. He is still the most reliable wicket-keeper batsman in the country. He proved it when he passed David Gower's aggregate of 8,231 runs in this, his 128th Test.

The Queen has decided to award him a new honour in the past few days only five years after his OBE and yet he is still as dedicated as ever, as smart as ever and more savvy that he was when his Test career began.

He did not achieve this status by accident and, in many senses like Geoff Boycott, he has maximised his talent by an infinite amount of hard work.

It is an example the younger players should follow, particularly now that their chance encounter with one of the worst Test teams of all time has allowed them to taste success and see just how sweet life can be when you win.