Jonathan Agnew: England’s No 1 challenge for 2012

As we approach 2012, and the start of a hectic twelve months for the England team early in the New Year, there is one major challenge facing Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower: to stay on top of the Test match ranking list.

After the memorable rise up the ICC rankings table in 2011, the England Test team have had an unusually long – but very welcome – break from the five-day game. Come mid-January, and the start of a three-Test series against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates, they will face a fascinating year of competition against a variety of opponents in a wide range of conditions. It will be an interesting time.

What I can say, sitting here in the chill of an English winter but anticipating the cricket to come in 2012, is that England will have done very well indeed if they are still the No 1 Test team in the world by this time next year.

The series against Pakistan, and then the short two-Test series in Sri Lanka which follows in late March and early April, will provide excellent further experience of subcontinental conditions – and I’d expect England to need to field a second specialist spinner in support of Graeme Swann in most, if not all, of those Tests.

Then come the three-Test home series against the West Indies and South Africa (why only three Tests against the South Africans – madness!), and in the autumn a four-Test series in India which will really show if England have managed to improve still further as a team in the twelve months of 2012. All in all, it is a tough schedule, but also just what this England team needs.

England certainly go into next year with confidence, well-rested, and with a settled senior squad that has real competition for places especially in fast bowling and batting. There are also a number of younger players – in particular James Taylor, Scott Borthwick and Ben Stokes – who look to me that they are capable of breaking into the Test team in the next twelve months and will certainly figure strongly in the one-day arena.

Taylor has just completed a high-profile transfer to Nottinghamshire and although that is a real shame for Leicestershire – the county that discovered and nurtured him – it should be a good move for him. From what I’ve seen of Taylor, I think he now needs to work hard on various aspects of his game and also needs to understand a little more the requirements of the team situation in County Championship cricket.

Borthwick will come into the reckoning for the second spinner’s spot, as he can also bat and field well, and Stokes will accelerate his improvement as an all-round cricketer now that he has had the surgery on the unfortunate hand injury which disrupted his 2011 season and especially his progress with the ball. But he looks an exciting talent.

I know, too, that England are focussing very clearly on the need to build a squad of players at Test level that can withstand the injuries that are bound to come in a busy year, and with their rotation policy in selection they are helping to manage that area of concern.

I am always a little nervous about offering total support for rotation of your best players in selection – if I had paid £70 for a ticket to watch England I’d like to be able to see the best players play – but there is a lot of sense, if players are either jaded mentally or struggling with an injury niggle, to prescribe a rest period rather than flogging them into the ground.

England will need a bit of luck, too, if they are to get through the upcoming 2012 schedule still on top of the world – but it should be terrific to watch.

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