England v West Indies

So England begin with a win. On paper a result of a five wicket win makes the test look routine for Andrew Strauss’ men.

However it was far from it.

Held up for the majority of the fourth day by Shiv Chanderpaul before being reduced to 57-4 on the final morning by a resolute West Indies side begins to tell the story of England’s laboured win.

I am not sure whether the English press didn’t realise what the West Indies packed, or as usual put England’s expectations through the roof but this was a lot closer than originally was thought.

In fact it would be interested to see what a Windies full strength team with the likes of Chris Gayle, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Sunil Narine could have offered.

Instead we saw a team with little experience, little confidence and little depth, the latter a stark contrast to their number one ranked  opponents.

But if England are that they need to begin playing like it and the sooner the better, Stuart Broad is not going to take 11 wicket in every match, in this test they escaped, against South Africa they will not.

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All about preperation for England

There has been one major difference in this Ashes preperation than previous years. And that is exactly it, preperation.

Three tour matches before a weeks rest is something unheard of for England players, who landed on enemy territory nearly a month before the first test in Brisbane.

However with batsmen scoring runs and bowlers taking wickets, it is all smiles for Andrew Strauss and his men, as the skipper tries to become the first captain since Mike Gatting to go to Australia and win the Ashes.

Strauss has already notched up two centuries, Alastair Cook has silenced his critics with a string of good knocks, Kevin Pietersen seems to have recaptured some form with the bat whilst sporting a new moustache and Ian Bell’s magnificent 192 against Australia A cemented his place at number six.

Paul Collingwood’s knocks of 94 and 89 have meant only Jonathan Trott hasn’t passed 50 yet, something that England’s number three will be wanting to put right in Brisbane this week.

The bowlers, who seem to have been in good form since the Ashes series in 2009, were sent ahead to Brisbane to ‘acclimatise’ after all four performed well in the first two warm-up games.

Stuart Broad, James Anderson, Steven Finn and spinner Graeme Swann all took wickets in the opening two games and have spent the last few days perfecting their sprinkler dance moves and getting their hair cut if you believe everything you read on Twitter.

That left the bowling work against the Aussie ‘A’ side to be done by the support bowlers who all performed admirably, Chris Tremlett snaring seven wickets in the match. Tim Bresnan also claiming six, whilst he scored a well timed 37 with the bat.

England have been very shrewed in their selection of back-up seamers. Each is a replica of one of the frontline three, meaning they have cover if any of Broad, Anderson and Finn get injured.

At 6ft 8 Chris Tremlett is the perfect stand in for the 6ft 7 Finn, whilst the skiddy swinger Ajmal Shahzad is the perfect foil for Anderson. If Stuart Broad is struck down by injury Tim Bresnan is the ideal replacement, probably giving England more options with the bat.

Everybody in the touring party bar Steven Davies and Eoin Morgan have played some form of cricket since being in Australia, this shows the confidence the selectors and especially coach Andy Flower have in the top seven, whilst they have given the bowlers the chance to rest, allowing the supporting cast to bowl their way into form.

Without organising to play three games ahead of what could be the biggest series of these players lives, England would not be in the shape they are, concerns would still be rife over Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen, the selection of Tim Bresnan and Chris Tremlett in the squad would still be questioned and the role Monty Panesar is meant to be playing would be seriously in doubt.

Instead, England are in form, in high spirits and have had their odds for retaining the Ashes slashed. Why? Well practice makes perfect doesn’t it?

Torrid summer ends in style for England

It has been a summer tour to forget for England with off field activity dominating the headlines, with the end not coming soon enough for Andrew Strauss and his men.

However last night they did their talking on the field with an emphatic 121 runs over Pakistan, Eoin Morgan once again showing his class with an unbeaten 107*  before Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann went to business with the ball, taking three wickets apiece.

It means England have been victorious in all six of their series this summer, the disappointment of the spot-betting scandal still casting the cricket into the shadows however.

But what successes can England take out of a summer where the cricket has been on the front pages for once but for the wrong reasons.

Well for starters we don’t have to play Pakistan again for at least a few years, they are a talented team don’t get me wrong, but similar to gaggle of women getting ready for a hen do, they contain far too much baggage.

On a more serious note, England’s batting line-up looks to have a decent structure to it now in test cricket, Jonathan Trott is the no-nonsense number three we have been crying out for, nearly becoming the first man to score two double centuries at Lords. Whilst Ian Bell and Eoin Morgan are viable options for the number six spot.

The form of Alastair Cook took a turn at the Oval where he recorded his first century since March, however both Paul Collingwood and Kevin Pietersen are still under pressure ahead of this winters Ashes.

Another plus has been the bowling attack, in both test and limited overs cricket, the attack looks formidable, James Anderson has taken over 30 wickets in six tests at 16 apiece, ably supported by Stuart Broad and Steven Finn in the longer form of the game, Broad and Tim Bresnan aiding the Lancastrian in the shorter forms.

Graeme Swann’s rise to being the best spinner in world cricket continued this summer, despite it being mainly ruled by pace bowlers, whilst wicket keeper Matt Prior has confirmed himself as a test class wicket keeper batsmen, with several match saving or winning knocks, including an important century at Trent Bridge.

On the negative side, as mentioned before Kevin Pietersen has gone through a poor summer with the bat, so poor in fact he was discarded by the One-Day side for the series with Pakistan and sent back to county cricket to regain form.

Away from the controversy surrounding the latter part of the summer, it has been a good test for England with good cricket played throughout, no doubt the highlight being the One-Day series win over Australia.

However the summer of 2010 will be remembered for the spot betting scandal and nothing more, people will already be forgetting Jonathan Trott and Stuart Broad’s record eighth wicket partnership at Lords, or James Anderson swinging his way through Pakistan at Trent Bridge.

Unfortunately people will always remember the bad things, the things that have changed or tarnished the game and what is more unfortunate is the whole scandal will dominate cricket for some time yet, despite the prospect of the Ashes just around the corner.

Trying to remain on the positives however, six wins from six for England this summer, only two series losses under the Flower/Strauss regime, World Twenty20 Champions and we have the best spin bowler in the world.

See there is much to cheer about if you’re an England fan.

Continuity may be England’s downfall

At the beginning of the summer, the England team management said this summers test series’ against Bangladesh and Pakistan would allow the team to ‘experiment’ with the team.

Where have these experiments been? So far they have the lab success rate of the Muppets pair Bunsen and Beaker, with one last test match before they kick off the Ashes in Brisbane in late November, England need a top drawer performance at Lords, after looking like the failed muppet scientists at the Oval last week.

Now I suppose credit may be due in the one area of the team were they did experiment, slightly. Skipper Andrew Strauss said at the beginning of the first test with Bangladesh in May, the team will have a new six batsmen four bowlers look to it and hopefully that would work well.

And it did. Very well indeed rolling over Bangladesh at Lords by eight wickets, before thrashing them by an inning at Old Trafford in the second match.

But what did they expect? For the selectors to sit there and say ‘lets experiment against the worst side in the world and see how we get on’ shows a real lack of intent on their part. Of course it will work against Bangladesh, most things would, you could send out an average county side and they would still beat Bangladesh.

With that series, the selectors outlined their plan for the Ashes, their ‘experiments’ were done, a good success rate against the side placed ninth in the rankings was a fantastic basis for a team to face one of, if not the best side in the world.

At least England have kept one promise, to stick to the same squad of players for continuity, in the four matches against Pakistan they have named the same starting XI and Tim Bresnan.

This means Australia now know our captain is in a poor run of form, Alastair Cook’s feet don’t seem to work unless it is a make or break situation, Kevin Pietersen and Paul Collingwood are woefully out of form and new boy Eoin Morgan is extremely unproven.

Whilst Stuart Broad gets wound up easily, Steven Finn and James Anderson are excellent in English conditions which is great for 30 degree heat down under and our back-up pace bowlers aren’t anything to write home about.

Meaning the hopes of bringing the urn back in early 2011 rest of Jonathan Trott, Matt Prior and Graeme Swann. Unless, the other eight really stand up to be counted and that needs to begin this week at Lords, regardless of the opposition, players need to be in form.

It is frustrating when people say we have a world-beating XI, capable of beating anyone on their day, basing their reasoning on four test matches against two of the poorer sides in world cricket.

If England fans want a testing comparison for their side, they need to go back to last Christmas were they struggled to a 1-1 draw in South Africa, which could easily have been 3-1 in the hosts favour.

Perhaps then the England fans and media alike may realise this Ashes is not going to be the walk in the park, many are predicting.

Batting failure gives England real cause for concern

Whilst Pakistan will be ecstatic with their bowling performance on day one of this third test, England will be deeply concerned after a very poor day at the office.

Only two of the host’s top six batsmen reached double figures and even then, the highest score was Eoin Morgan’s 15.

In fact, if it wasn’t for Matt Prior and Stuart Broad’s century stand, England could have endured their worst batting performance since Headingley 12 months ago, when Australia skittled them for 102.

And this top order collapse, not for the first time this summer really does beg the question, are the England bowlers along with some relatively poor opposition batting, just papering over England’s cracks ahead of this winters Ashes?

Besides the 505 England got at Lords in the opening test of the summer against Bangladesh, as well as the 599 England’s A squad hit in Bangladesh in March (where run scoring is easy), Andrew Strauss’s men have only passed 500 once in 12 months. That was against South Africa at Durban in the Boxing Day test.

Now you can argue that this summer hasn’t been the ideal conditions for batting, but these are supposedly world-class batsmen, they should be able to bat well on all surfaces.

However, they have been demolished today by a guy making his test debut and in truth, they have only passed 350 in three innings this summer.

If it hadn’t been for the bowlers bowling well against poor opposition being England’s get out of jail free card, they could have been really embarrassed this summer.

But what is it that has troubled England’s batsmen?

Really it comes down to three factors. Firstly, the temperament of the batsmen is not good enough; they do not cope well when their backs are against the wall. Kevin Pietersen and Eoin Morgan like to play shots, as do the openers Strauss and Alastair Cook, meaning when under pressure they often struggle.

Secondly, none of the batsmen are in a rich vein of form, all have struggled for runs this summer, with Pietersen and Cook really struggling for form, both have their positions under threat.

And the form of Cook is the real trouble; he has not made a telling contribution this summer, meaning often England find themselves a wicket down early on. Combined this with the above two points and often England are wickets down and under pressure from the beginning, not allowing the likes of Pietersen and Morgan the chance to play their shots.

If these kinds of issues are not resolved come the end of November and the Ashes, perhaps Ricky Ponting’s prediction of a whitewash might not be too farfetched.

England’s bowlers world beaters? Not yet.

They say Cricket is a funny old game and there was yet more proof yesterday at Edgbaston as England’s bowlers ran through Pakistan for the third time in a week, on their way to achieving a dominant position in the second test.

It only seems a few weeks ago that the English media was saying the team needs five bowlers if they are going to be able to take 20 wickets in a match. However four matches later and more importantly four impressive bowling performances later, we have a world-beating attack, capable of bowling out anyone.

It is funny how the media can elaborate a couple of good performances, don’t get me wrong, the attack has been bowling well, getting the ball in the right areas, using the conditions well, however these tests have barely been testing have they?

With all due respect, Bangladesh are not a good enough opposition, whilst this Pakistan team have far too many politics in them to be able to concentrate fully on a match.

Throw into the mixing pot that when England have bowled, it has been grey skies and extremely suitable for swing bowling, and you can begin to see why James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Steven Finn have done so well.

Now all of a sudden these four swing bowlers will definitely take 20 Australian wickets, five games in a row in this winter. I’m sorry do Brisbane and Perth have similar climates to Nottingham and Birmingham?

Don’t get me wrong, the attack is good, the attack is promising, but you cannot gauge how they will bowl in Australia, based on the results of the last four test matches.

Whilst the media are now lauding the bowlers, their criticism of the batsmen is just.  The team will need twenty wickets to beat Australia, they will also need scores of 400+ and at the moment several of the current top order do not look like they will get near it.

Alastair Cook got out to another poor shot yesterday, Andrew Strauss got a good ball, you can even say Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen should have been out, both were dropped yesterday. England Coach Andy Flower would probably be happier at tea today, if Pietersen walks off unbeaten on 120, than he was at tea yesterday when England had already rolled Pakistan over.

What doesn’t help Pietersen is the pressure he is under, from the media and from himself to succeed, to be the best. This is his chance today though, not out 30 odd overnight, he can come in this morning, no new ball to face, get to his half century and then go from there. A century today would do wonders for his and the teams confidence.

Whilst the team are bowling well but batting not so well, their fielding has been unbelievable. They are arguably the best fielding side in the world with brilliant slip fielders and strong out fielders.

However they will need to be the best in the world at all three disciplines if they are going to beat Australia this winter, something they need to work on in the final two and a half tests before the summer is over.