Two-nil up. The Ashes retained. It seems that all has gone to plan for Alastair Cook and his men. And yet, bar one DRS review and a sunny day in Manchester, England could very easily be heading to Durham 2-1 down to an Australia side that remains some distance from fulfilling its rather limited potential.
For such a successful team the current England side is remarkably full of holes. The batsmen, in particular, have frequently been bailed out by one superb performance, be that Ian Bell at Trent Bridge, Joe Root at Lord’s or Kevin Pietersen’s comeback knock at Old Trafford.
Aside from those three the rest of the batsmen have looked far from impressive, with Cook looking short of form and weak outside his off-stump even whilst putting together two half-centuries. Jonathan Trott and Matt Prior have looked even worse, the former struggling to convincingly time the ball and the latter’s problem outside his stumps worse than in recent memory.
But perhaps the biggest question of all surrounds Jonny Bairstow. An unquestionably talented batsman who will surely be crucial to the English side in all forms of cricket for years to come, he is clearly scratching around for form, averaging just 32 runs in the series.
Unlike his more experienced colleagues Bairstow lacks the resumé and weight of runs to support a drought. Prior, Trott and Cook have nearly 15,000 runs, 41 centuries and 211 Tests to draw on. Bairstow has 502 runs and no centuries in 11 Tests.
Behind the Yorkshireman is a queue of potential number sixes either yet to prove themselves or yet to make the most of the opportunities provided. In the latter group are Ravi Bopara and Eoin Morgan, both capable one-day batsmen with Bopara in particular having shone in the recent Champions Trophy.
His record against Australia leaves a great deal to be desired however, with his last Ashes series seeing him collapse from only the fifth Englishman to score three consecutive centuries to Ben Hilfenhaus’ bunny. However, Bopara could provide valuable balance to the side, his medium pace bowling being an effective support tool to a four-man attack.
Two future England stars, James Taylor and Gary Ballance, are leading the new breed. Taylor’s appearance in two Tests against South Africa last year included an impressive 34 in a match-saving stand with Kevin Pietersen, before the latter’s ‘retirement’ saw Taylor somewhat forgotten until he stole the show with a century against the Australians for Sussex.
Ballance’s performances in the County Championship have helped Yorkshire to the top of Division One but he has yet to play for England in any form of cricket and a tour of or to Australia would certainly represent a baptism of fire.
The batsmen are not the only ones struggling. Though Jimmy Anderson and Graeme Swann have proven themselves to be amongst the best bowlers of their type the remainder have not been so successful. Though Stuart Broad has bowled well and often looked dangerous his series’ batting has been far more influential than his six wickets. Steven Finn looks nothing like the bowler who shone in India in 2011 whilst Tim Bresnan has gone two years without a five wicket haul.
Graham Onions may well play at his home ground and Chris Tremlett had a fantastic series in Australia. But both are more consistent at picking up injuries than turning out for England. The squad’s much vaunted bowling depth counts for nothing when the bowlers are either struggling or lacking fitness.
England have probably been the better side in this series but for the second best side in world cricket there is a lot of wasted skill in the squad. If that is not solved in the coming Tests, they may find an away series against a seething Australian side to be far more challenging.
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