January 6, 2011

Annus mirabilis

Winning a world title and retaining the Ashes - have England ever had a better year?

In the space of a heady 12 months England have been crushed by an innings in Johannesburg, blown away at The Oval by Pakistan, thumped on a Perth flyer by Australia, and beaten for the first time in history by Bangladesh. These are hardly the raw materials you would expect to find in your average world-beating outfit, but make no mistake, 2010 was an incredible year for England. The fact that those setbacks show such clear room for improvement makes the prospects for 2011 all the more alluring.

More than anything 2010 was a year of reawakening. Emotionally their achievements may not have resonated with the public to quite the same extent as the team's rise and rise under Michael Vaughan in 2004-05 - back at a time when the capturing of the Ashes was the only mission that really counted after two decades in which such a prospect had seemed utterly inconceivable. But five years on, there's a more rounded sense of purpose to the current squad. The stated endgame for Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss is for England to become the best cricket team in the world, an intentionally fluid objective that treats victories as starting points, not destinations.

The full picture of England's year will not be complete until the Sydney Test has been concluded - though all signs point to a favourable result there. However, the strides they have made to date have been immense, not least in one-day cricket, a form of the game that previous regimes had treated like toxic assets to be stashed away in a bad bank and kept out of sight of the accountants. Now all of a sudden they have stormed the boardroom to become World Twenty20 champions, and they have not lost a series in 15 attempts across all three forms of the game. The only contest in 15 months in which they haven't emerged with at least a share of the silverware is the Champions Trophy in October 2009, and even then they surpassed expectations to reach the semi-finals.

Not a single aspect of England's year was left to chance, which is remarkable given that, on paper at least, their itinerary was the sort that would have led previous regimes to drop their guard and save all their best efforts for the Aussies. Home and away series against Bangladesh did not quicken the pulse, nor did the prospect of four Tests against a Pakistan team shorn of its star names (although the Pakistanis inevitably forced a revision of that assessment for all manner of reasons, more of which later). As for the World Twenty20… forget it, we presumed, after watching Jonathan Trott and Joe Denly flounder at the top of the order during a two-match stopover against Pakistan in Dubai.

But somehow, every step of the way England managed to achieve selectorial alchemy. Lurking in the Emirates on that same brief stopover was one Craig Kieswetter, who qualified as an Englishman only hours after battering the Lions to victory over the senior side in a warm-up in Abu Dhabi. He was instantly appended to the ODI squad for Bangladesh, where he scored his maiden century in Chittagong, and within three months he had claimed the Man-of-the-Match award in the World Twenty20 final in Barbados. Likewise Steven Finn and Tim Bresnan, neither original picks in the Test party for Bangladesh, both cut their teeth for the Ashes on that trip - the challenge of surmounting the deadest wickets in the world game more than compensated for the relative paucity of the opposition.

The decision to name Alastair Cook as captain for that Bangladesh trip was amply justified by hindsight. Not only did it ensure Andrew Strauss had a long and much-needed break after his exertions of the previous year, it sharpened the intensity of a tour that could otherwise have been humdrum for the England team. Anything less than five wins out of five would have been seen as a failure for Cook, and in the second ODI, in Mirpur, England sailed perilously close to defeat. But when the pressure was on he responded superbly with hundreds in each of the Tests - much as he did to give England their flying start in Australia.

And then there was Paul Collingwood's fortnight of glory in the Caribbean. It was a year of three captains but a single unifying cause, and no sight was more uplifting than the moment in which Collingwood struck the winning runs off Shane Watson in the World Twenty20 final. The most loyal foot soldier in the England team, who had begun the year with the third of his invaluable Test rearguards in Cape Town, suddenly found himself being mentioned in the same breath as Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, the only other England captains to have claimed a global sporting title.

The year was made memorable by those two remarkable peaks in the West Indies and Australia, but there was also one desperate trough, the Pakistan spot-fixing scandal that erupted during the fourth Test at Lord's and entirely dominated the final month of the English season. And yet even that, in hindsight, was a trauma worth enduring for England, for it forced the squad to bind together like never before, and to keep their heads while all around them were losing theirs. When the subsequent ODI series was sealed in the final match at the Rose Bowl in September, their righteous jubilation was as intense as any Ashes celebration.

Perhaps more than anything, this is a team that is worldly-wise, for it incorporates a range of players who have experienced some of the best and worst feelings imaginable on a cricket field. Four of the top six felt the matchless euphoria of 2005; six of the current XI were lampooned during the 5-0 whitewash. Graeme Swann thought his career was over before he was handed his shot at redemption; Matt Prior had to reinvent his game after his glovework was ridiculed in his debut season. And overseeing it all is a coach in Flower who possessed the drive as a player to become the No. 1 batsman in the world, even though his country, Zimbabwe, could never countenance such heights. England, on the other hand, certainly can think that big.

New kid on the block
He may have faded in the latter half of the Ashes, with Chris Tremlett finishing the year as the first-choice beanpole in England's seam attack, but Steven Finn shouldered the expectations that were thrown his way. At the age of 21, with more meat to be added to his bones in due course, he has a very bright future indeed. His debut in Bangladesh came in something of a blur - one minute he was lolling on his sofa in London, the next he was in Chittagong preparing to take the place of the injured Graham Onions - but having acquitted himself admirably on the flattest decks in the world game, he reaped his rewards in a prolific home summer. Six wickets on his Ashes debut were further evidence of his calibre, and while his inexperience caused him to leak runs, he still maintained a happy knack of making timely breakthroughs.

Fading stars
Paul Collingwood's last hurrah in Test cricket may have come at the SCG, but a man of his durability will not be finished in all forms just yet - certainly not while there's still the prospect of defending his World Twenty20 crown in Sri Lanka 2012.

One man who has gone for good, however, is Ryan Sidebottom - a bowler who singlehandedly carried the attack during the dog days of 2007-08, and whose body in the end succumbed to those exertions. Nevertheless, he bowed out in glory with an integral role in the Caribbean. Having believed for most of the decade that one Test cap would be the sum of his international achievements, he truly surpassed every one of his expectations.

High point
A maiden global trophy was a nice trinket to bring back to the Lord's display cabinet, but given the context and the age-old rivalry, nothing could match the delirious satisfaction of putting Australia on the canvas in an extraordinary start to the Boxing Day Test at the MCG. On England's previous visit four years earlier, the Ashes had already been lost and the match scarcely limped into a third day, but as had also been the case in Adelaide, history swiftly proved to be bunk. Ninety-eight all out by tea, and England 157 for 0 at the close. Remarkable.

Low point
They always say it's darkest before the dawn, and so it proved back in January, when England's precious 1-0 lead over South Africa was snatched away at altitude by Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel. The Wanderers' spring-loaded wicket proved unplayable for a succession of batsmen who had already checked in their mental luggage in anticipation of their first prolonged break since the start of the Ashes in July 2009. It was a result that seemed to have undermined all the progress that had been made in the previous 12 months, but hindsight shows it to have been a vital reality check. The knowledge that they are not the finished article has kept this England squad hungry for improvement.

What 2011 holds
Unlike England's last groundbreaking Ashes success in 2005, there is no sense that the journey has already been completed - far from it. The celebrations after the Melbourne Test were raucous but contained, and the talk the morning after instantly moved onto a raft of fast-approaching assignments. The Sydney Test is the first objective, of course, but the World Cup and an epic home series against the No. 1 Test nation, India, are just around the corner. Under Flower and Strauss, England crave the status of top dogs. And with a young, ambitious and well-rounded squad at their disposal, they are better placed than any previous England team to make it a reality.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.