When that coin is in the air tonight, spinning down to reveal who will face the first ball in the 66th Ashes series, Andrew Strauss will be stood watching, on the verge of finding out just how good his side is.
Because do we really know how good England are? It’s a toughy; not as easily quantifiable as Sunday roasts good, Hitler bad. The statistics are these: Strauss has won 10 of his 22 Tests since becoming captain in early 2009, and he also won three of his five Tests as acting skipper in 2006 and 2007. He has led England to an Ashes victory at the first time of asking and a very creditable draw in South Africa. It’s a good record.
Hang on though, England lost by an innings at Kingston, failed to win at all in the Caribbean and beat a Pakistan side this summer who had their minds on other things. Told you it was a toughy.
Let’s start with the Liverpool FC method of ascertaining how good your side is: the weak links. After all, Liverpool may have the world-class Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard (good side) but they also have the wrong-class Christian Poulsen and Ryan Babel (bad side).
In the build up to the Ashes, Australian commentators have targeted Alastair Cook, Steven Finn and Paul Collingwood as England’s weak links. Cook’s technical problems are as public as they are troubling, but he has 13 Test hundreds at the age of 25.
Finn isn’t a weak link. Just because you’re an unknown quantity doesn’t make you bad. Bob Willis turned out alright in 1970-71 and Al Pacino did OK for himself in The Godfather, so a lack of experience does not equal failure (Darren Pattinson was a bad dream. It never happened).
Paul Collingwood has had plenty of detractors (me included: his batting can look so foreign to him that it reminds me of Keanu Reeves’ English accent in Bram Stoker’s Dracula). Yet he has two Ashes-winner medals, an MBE and the only double-hundred against the Aussies by a Pom in 12 years. Marcus North, Simon Katich and Shane Watson would sell Geoff Boycott’s granny for that record.
Looking for real weaknesses in this England side is like a dodgy plumber telling you it’ll cost you £700 and three days work to repair a tiny crack in the piping. Yes, there’s a bit of a problem with Cook’s technique outside off but it doesn’t make him Phil Tufnell – it has also helped him score four hundreds in his last four Tests.
Let’s face it, England have no Paul Harris, no Tim McIntosh, no Marcus North. Sure, they have the occasional collapse, but which team doesn’t? India, the No. 1 Test side, were recently reduced to 65 for 6 on home soil by New Zealand. These things happen.
So, England pass the Liverpool Test. Next is the Surrey Test: comparing the current side to past glories. So, how do England fare against the 2005 Ashes-winning team? Well, Strauss’s side includes a wicketkeeper who can catch the ball, a spinner who can take wickets, a captain who consistently scores runs, a No. 3 with a hundred in his only Ashes Test and two tall, fast bowlers who won’t be spraying it to second slip.
The biggest difference is the loss of Marcus Trescothick and the fire and thunder he provided at the top of the order. Two of the other great names that are missing, Andrew Flintoff and Simon Jones, were made on the back of world-beating performances in 2005. History can repeated: Broad and Finn have the quality to emulate those two, while James Anderson appears to finally be in the right place to add the Hoggard Consistency factor to his game.
The one quality lacking from this current side is batting impetus. While the 2005 line-up had Trescothick, Vaughan and Pietersen to up the scoring rate, only KP remains. It’s down to Ian Bell, who once batted like a pig snuffling for truffles, to add that extra flair.
Where once Bell was the platypus of the England side, unsure of exactly what the hell he was (half duck, half otter?), he now appears certain of his role and his strengths. If Bell scores runs this series, then the debate will no longer be about England being good or not, but whether they’re great.
Daniel Brigham is assistant editor of The Wisden Cricketer
Follow him on Twitter: WisdenCric_Dan