Victory in Colombo on the final day of their winter Test travels, securing a 1-1 draw against Sri Lanka after four successive defeats, has at last given Andrew Strauss and his team something to smile about – especially as it has also enabled them to hang on to their No 1 Test status.
But should this winter’s five Tests – three against Pakistan in the UAE and two in Sri Lanka – have proved quite such a struggle? Indeed, has an inbuilt conservatism in selection been at the root of England’s problems?
This winter England Test captain Strauss and team director Andy Flower have come under pressure for the first time since they found themselves thrown together in charge during a difficult tour to the West Indies in early 2009, and it seems that caution is part of their leadership style.
The decision in Colombo to leave out Monty Panesar, a rare success story of the winter on his return to the Test arena, is a good example. Samit Patel was preferred as Graeme Swann’s spin partner, not because of his ability as an international spinner – clearly he is not in Panesar’s class – but because he could bat at seven in the order, behind Matt Prior and in front of Tim Bresnan, and therefore stiffen the batting.
England’s management will point quite rightly to the second Test win in Colombo as the ultimate justification of this selection policy – and, moreover, to the rise to the top of the Test rankings itself.
One of the ironies of England’s winter has been that, while attacks of four frontline bowlers have performed heroically, it has been their batsmen who have let them down – until Colombo and Kevin Pietersen in particular, that is.
When England review their winter, it is almost certain that Strauss and Flower will not put their preference for six batsmen and four frontline bowlers at the heart of any questions about why the team struggled for so long. Yet perhaps it was an initial injury to Bresnan – the one genuine all-round option at No 7 – which disrupted England’s plans more than they would admit.
Panesar, as events in the rest of the Pakistan series showed, was erroneously omitted from England’s first Test of the winter, in Dubai, so that a third seamer – Chris Tremlett – could be played. Indeed, Bresnan’s injury probably prevented Strauss and Flower from fielding a five-man attack in that Test when, originally, Panesar and Swann were pencilled in to join Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Bresnan in the final XI.
Eoin Morgan was reprieved when Bresnan flew home from the UAE, not that the Middlesex batsman made the most of it in a wretched series that subsequently saw him dropped from the tour to Sri Lanka, and when Bresnan finally returned to the side – as England again opted for three seamers in Colombo by playing Steven Finn alongside him and Anderson – it was Patel who, in effect, replaced the injured Broad in the lower middle order.
Since Andrew Flintoff’s retirement, indeed, Strauss and Flower have shied away from fielding a specialist five-man bowling line-up, always in the interests of a longer batting order, but if Bresnan had been fit in Dubai and for the rest of the Pakistan series, and if Bresnan had been selected ahead of Patel in Galle, would England’s winter fortunes have turned out better?
Mark Baldwin also writes on cricket for The Times