England’s tour of Australia is finally over. It’s done, they’re coming home and I’ve never seen a group of players so relieved to just get away from a series, or any group of fans so disillusioned. There’s no question about it: Australia have done England good and proper over the last couple of months, but the damage hasn’t been limited to score-lines or even the dreaded “whitewash”.
No, Australia have torn into the English dressing room, destroyed the morale of a team which had previously felt on top and taken them from a side capable of beating anyone to a fragmented team in disarray. Andy Flower, the head coach who led England to back-to-back Ashes victories, Graeme Swann and now Kevin Pietersen have already left the national team in the aftermath of this tour down under. Questions remain about Alistair Cook’s captaincy, Matt Prior’s place and a host of other names in the squad.
The post-mortem of this winter doesn’t make good reading, but beyond the litany of savage statistics which will define the series, there’s a rebuilding job to do. There’s a future to craft for what could be a brand new England side. Who is ready to make the step up into or step aside from the Test side? Where will England’s recovery from a 5-0 drubbing take them?
Let’s start at the top – the man who doesn’t even head out in to the middle – the new head coach who will step in to Andy Flower’s big, big shoes. The media line is that whilst the Zimbabwean takes his due share of responsibility for a dismal winter, the decision for change is not a direct consequence of results but a desire for England to return to having just one head coach responsible for all formats. There are two early favourites to take over the position: current ODI coach, legendary King of Spain Ashley Giles and former India coach Gary Kirsten. Kirsten has stated to the press recently that he wants to spend more time at home in his native South Africa, which doesn’t seem compatible with the England job. But an unprecedented £1m contract from the ECB might be enough to sway one of the finest coaches in modern cricket. Giles, on the other hand, is untested at the top level and would be something of a gamble for the governing body. However, he has been working with a majority of the current England players for the last few years and is well liked in the group. He seems well placed to expand his current role and take control of the Test side.
The decision for change is not a direct consequence of results but a desire for England to return to having just one head coach responsible for all formats.
Along with Flower’s departure, the England dressing room could look substantially different in June when Sri Lanka visit for the first Test series of 2014. After returning to the England team in 2009, Graeme Swann had become one of the finest spin bowlers in the game today and, together with James Anderson, formed the core of a dominant bowling unit. Injury took its toll and now England find themselves with a big question mark hanging over the spinning positions. In the short term, the perennial drinks carrier Monty Panesar is in all likelihood the best option currently available, but as endearing as Monty has always been, his selection is at best short-sighted and at worst a lack of ambition on behalf of the selection panel. There are a handful of good quality spinners on the domestic circuit: Scott Borthwick at Durham or Nottinghamshire’s Sam Wood – neither of whom are of Swann’s quality but both, unlike Monty, are likely to improve hugely.
There are two early favourites to take over the position: current ODI coach Ashley Giles and former India coach Gary Kirsten.
The rest of the established bowling unit looks solid for the time being, with James Anderson remaining one of best seam bowlers in world cricket and Stuart Broad being fantastic on his better days. After that, there are a whole host of nearly-men trying to claim spots on the team sheet. Competition has been intensified by Steven Finn’s disappointing tour and early withdrawal, leaving the continued selection of England’s only true fast bowler in doubt. Ben Stokes has now featured in four Test matches and a raft of ODIs and while the Durham native lacks the height and venom of Finn, he offers consistency in the vein of the almost-forgotten Graham Onions or Tim Bresnan.
Matt Prior should also be concerned for his Test future. The England wicketkeeper found himself dropped for the final two Ashes Tests and will have a fight on his hands to regain the spot permanently. Prior has always been better with a bat than behind the stumps and his immediate replacement is of the same stock – 24 year old Yorkshireman Jonny Bairstow. England’s One Day WK, Jos Butler, is yet to show that he has a handle on Test match batting, so expect to see a straight fight between Prior and Bairstow for the gloves. But don’t be surprised if the veteran holds on to them for now.
The future of England’s batting line up isn’t exactly certain either, although it seems to be more of an evolution than a revolution. Joe Root is steadily staking his claim for regular inclusion over the past year, with Gary Balance and Jonny Bairstow (this time without the gloves) also hovering around the selector’s periphery. There is of course the delicate issue of Jonathan Trott’s early flight home in December as a result of a long standing stress condition, bringing with it uncomfortable memories of Marcus Trescothick’s battles with depression and ultimate inability to play for his country. There’s no word at the minute as to whether Trott is realistically expected to return to international cricket, but the entire selection panel should have everything crossed in the hope that he makes a full return.
Any discussion on the makeup of England future batting line up won’t include one man though. Not only has Kevin Pietersen been dropped from the Test side, but he has also been removed from the International cricket scene altogether by the ECB. Like for many England batsmen, this hasn’t been a happy tour and Pietersen must accept his share of the responsibility as part of a batting unit which repeatedly failed to perform. But there’s more to his demise than that. This is a decision made by executives following weeks of speculation about relationships in the dressing room and what appears to be a toxic environment in which Pietersen is to pay the price. It’s a bold and unnecessarily public action to remove a player so completely, effectively banning him from all forms of cricket for England. It is one which may very well haunt the ECB.
It’s a bold and unnecessarily public action effectively banning Pietersen from all forms of cricket for England. It may very well haunt the ECB.
Finally, there’s one more position that has media tongues wagging: Alistair Cook and his continued captaincy of the Test side. After a devastating tour like this winter, should a captain fall on his sword, take the blame and allow someone else to have a go? The answer is actually very simple. Absolutely not. Of course Cook has to stand up and take the flak and he, like the rest of the batting unit, must ask serious questions of themselves before the next Test series. But with the rest of the team in such a state of flux as it is at the beginning of 2014, a rookie captain would be nothing short of asking for trouble – and we’ve had enough of that for now.
Images courtesy of Fishyone1 and NAPARAZZI on flickr