England headed into this week's fifth Ashes Test at the Oval with a chance to end the series 4-1, a result that will signal the heaviest defeat in history for a touring Australia side.
The home side have put themselves in a glorious position; they have already regained the Ashes and the Oval is a ground where they are historically very strong. In the 11 Ashes Tests that the Oval has hosted, Australia have won just once (August 2001).
The only slightly solitary piece of news heading into the Test is that James Anderson, England’s all-time leading wicket-taker, failed to regain full fitness after picking up a side strain during the Trent Bridge Test.
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Australia have got themselves off to a great start, currently sitting at 343-5 with Steve Smith approaching an over due century.
Apart from that, English spirits are high. And who can blame them? Six weeks ago, prior to the start of the Cardiff Test, few people fancied England to regain the urn. There were murmurs of optimism in certain circles but the general feeling was that the bookies, who rarely lie, were right to install Australia as firm favourites.
A lot has happened since then. After four Tests, which have yielded 4014 runs and 131 wickets, Alastair Cook's side has not only proved the bookies wrong, but they've also silenced a nation full of naysayers.
This is where the sense of optimism about this England side starts. In the title of this piece, I used the word “cautious”, which may leave me to be accused by some readers of sitting on the fence slightly. However, if there’s one thing I’ve learnt from following England’s cricket team for the past decade, it’s that you should never get too far ahead of yourself.
There are few teams in the world of sport that have had the ability, in recent years unquestionably, to make an audience feel so elated one moment, then so exasperated in another, quite like the England cricket team. After the greatest Ashes series of the modern era in 2005, England followed up their marvellous achievement by falling foul of a 5-0 drubbing Down Under.
Although England then enjoyed a period of Ashes dominated from 2009-2013, there was never really the same interest or eager anticipation that surrounded the 2005 series. The Australia team of 2005 featured some of the greatest Test players of all time: Hayden, Ponting, Clarke, Gilchrist, McGrath and Warne, in stark contrast, the teams of 2009-13, although competitive, featured only a few genuinely great Test players; Michael Clarke, Mike Hussey and an ageing Ricky Ponting spring to mind.
England’s Ashes victory of 2015 is all the more satisfying when you consider that when Australia arrived, they were top of the ICC Test Rankings. After they annihilated England 5-0 in the 2013/14 Ashes series, they went on to record series victories over South Africa and India, whilst also winning the 50 over World Cup earlier this year.
England have managed to find faults in the techniques of Australia’s top players; Steve Smith, who arrived as the number one batsman in the world, has regularly been exposed when England have swung the ball.
Now, onto the future. No matter the result of the fifth Test, England will enjoy some amazing, well-deserved celebrations. After the euphoria has settled, England will encounter an entirely different proposition; Pakistan in the U.A.E.
I am by no means trying to overlook England’s Ashes victory in any way, but in order to reach the summit of the Test rankings once again, they need to prove they can win in difficult, less favourable conditions.
In the form of Saeed Ajmal (35 Tests, 178 wickets) and Yasir Shah (10 Tests, 61 wickets), Pakistan has two of the finest spinners in world cricket. On turning wickets in the Middle East, England’s batting technique will be examined scrupulously.
If England are to continue their rise up the rankings, they will need to prove themselves in testing conditions away from home. A series win the U.A.E against a dangerous Pakistani side will certainly put them on their way.
The most challenging assignment that awaits this young England side, however, will be when they travel to the current best Test side in the world, South Africa, over the Christmas period.
Since their return to Test cricket in 1992, England have managed only one series win in South Africa from four attempts. If England’s batsmen, led by the charismatic number one player in world cricket, Joe Root, are able to nullify the threat of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, then we might be able to begin to consider England as serious contenders for becoming the number one ranked team in Test cricket.
The upcoming series in South Africa will also provide a serious test of the skill levels of England’s bowlers. Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson have proved over the past decade that on their day they are arguably the best bowling tandem in world cricket, but they cannot go on forever; it is now the time for young Mark Wood and, in particular, Steve Finn, to prove that they are worthy of leading the pace attack in the future.