Winter Tour True Test Of New England

England have regained The Ashes, given the old enemy a hiding and embraced a new, adventurous form of cricket previously only reserved for upstart nations like New Zealand and players from the Caribbean. It is only a matter of time before England are the number one ranked side in world cricket again.

Or at least, that’s what you might think were you to get as swept up in England’s Ashes success as some seem to have been.

Beating Australia, home or away, will always trigger celebration. Large swathes of England’s fan base remember the near 15 year monopoly Australia had on the urn, and so any success against this mighty opponent will be met with rapture.

But England’s mastery of home conditions was surpassed by Australia’s inability to get to grips with a squidgy Glamorgan track or a seaming pitch at Trent Bridge. Where Alistair Cook’s men turned up for three Tests, Australia only did so for one.

This isn’t to say it was ‘easy’ for England per se, but, conquering a capitulating opponent in favourable conditions is one thing, while this winter’s tours are quite another.

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In October, England take on Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates; where the two sides last met in early 2012, when England were put to the sword by Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman as Pakistan secured a 3-0 series victory.

A second innings collapse during the Second Test was a particular low point for England, bowled out for just 72 while chasing 145 for victory. But a 10 wicket defeat in the First Test and 71 run defeat in the Third – despite bowling Pakistan out for 99 in their own first innings – sandwiched the collapse, helping wipe away any momentum built during 2011, when England topped Australia, Sri Lanka and India.

Currently ranked third in the World, Pakistan remain a formidable opponent; even if their chief wicket takers of three years ago are now absent.

Rehman took 19 wickets at 16.73 during the series, including a career best 6-25 during that infamous Second Test collapse, but hasn’t played international cricket since 2014. The ‘loss’ of Ajmal may be the most significant however.

The Worcestershire spinner took a series best 24 wickets at 14.70 in 2012, but was banned from cricket in September 2014, after his action was deemed illegal by the ICC.

Ajmal, who took 63 wickets in nine games for Worcestershire last season, has been cleared to play again after remodelling his action; but his effectiveness is noticeably diminished.

The 37-year old returned match figures of 8-100 as Worcestershire beat Hampshire by an innings and 33 runs in early July, but has been otherwise unimpressive. In two One Day Internationals against Bangladesh in April, Ajmal returned figures of 0-72 from 10 overs and 1-49 in 9.1 overs, before being dropped for the final game of the series (which Bangladesh also won). Ajmal has not featured for Pakistan since.

The emergence of Yasir Shah keep Pakistani spin hopes alive however. In 10 Tests, the 29-year old has taken 61 wickets at 24.81, including 24 during the recent tour of Sri Lanka, while veterans Zulfiqar Babar and Mohammad Hafeez also featured in the three match series – which Pakistan won 2-1.

Spinner friendly wickets are nothing new on the sub continent. Monty Panesar was England’s most effective bowler during the 2012 tour with 14 wickets, despite being left out of the First Test; and the upcoming series provides a test of both England’s ability to play in unfamiliar conditions, but also manage their squad.

While Moeen Ali continues to be the spinner of choice, a secondary option seems essential in the UAE – paving the way for Adil Rashid to make his long awaited ascension to the England team.

Who the Yorkshire’ twirler might replace is a matter of great discussion however; with options ranging from moving Ali to the top of the order, at the expense of Adam Lyth, to dropping one of England’s seam bowlers to fit the conditions.

With James Anderson certain to be back in the team by then, one of Steve Finn, Mark Wood and Ben Stokes will already miss out. For a second Ashes winner to also lose his place may seem incredibly harsh, but needs must and heading in to a series with Pakistan, where playing with Ali and Joe Root as front line spinners seems questionable at best. Especially given the calibre of the opposition against the turning ball.

While the next generation of Pakistani stalwarts, such as Shah or batsman Ahmed Shehzad, continue to impress; Pakistan’s elder statesmen will also provide a challenge for this youthful England side.

Younis Khan has scored more than 2,000 runs since turning 35, at an average of 60.52, and 41-year old Captain Misbah-ul-Haq may be the latest of late bloomers, having played 45 of his 58 Tests since turning 35.

It’s the kind of mix that make sides tough to beat in any circumstances, veteran experience combined with youthful exuberance.

England’s winter challenge does not end there however. As in 2012, a clash with South Africa follows England’s encounter with Pakistan – completing a unique run where Trevor Bayliss side will have played each of the top three Test sides in consecutive series.

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After a rain affected Test series in Bangladesh (Who organises a Test series during monsoon season?!), South Africa are currently preparing for a series of limited over games against New Zealand before touring India in November.

Undoubtedly tough tests for the Proteas ahead of the First Test against England on boxing day, but South Africa are the number one ranked Test side for a reason.

Fast bowler Dale Steyn grabbed the headlines recently, becoming the fastest bowler (thirteenth overall) to pass 400 Test wickets during the series with Bangladesh, and the 32-year old sits as the spearhead of one of the international games most feared bowling attacks.

Steyn tops the ICC Player Rankings for Test bowlers, with countrymen Vernon Philander sixth and Morne Morkel tenth. Not only does it make South Africa the sole nation with three bowlers in the top ten, but underlines the potency of an attack that skittled the West Indies last Christmas and helped power the nation to the top of world cricket.

South Africa are not a side built purely on the superiority of their bowling attack however; with AB de Villiers, ranked second in the world behind Joe Root, Captain Hashim Amla, one of the smartest and most elegant batsmen in cricket, and Faf du Plessis, who has showed he is more than just an explosive limited overs batsman, forming a rock solid middle order.

There are some mild concerns about the South African’s opening pair, with Stiaan van Zyl, who scored 101* on his debut vs the West Indies, opening with Dean Elgar in Bangladesh following Alviro Pietersen’s move to Lancashire under the Kolpak Agreement, but the strength in depth South Africa possess sure to test both England’s batsmen and bowlers.

Since South Africa’s return to the international stage, nine series have been played between the two nations – South Africa winning four, England two and three draws – with the teams competing for the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy since 2004/05.

Traditionally close series, England and South Africa engaged in a number of iconic duels – including Michael Atherton’s famous 185* at Johannesburg in 1995 – and this winter is not expected to differ.

England’s seam bowling attack can go back and forth with the host nations, if the batsmen can do the same with Amla and co.

South Africa will, understandably, start as favourites for the series. It would not be a surprise for them to win the series. But that may not be the be all and end all for England, who now see themselves as back on the ‘right path’ following a different period prior to this summer’s Ashes.

If England can trade blows with arguably the most balanced, effective and ferocious side in world cricket, the optimism this summer has brought back will be justified – a corner turned.

Perhaps that is the beauty of the way the schedule has worked out. Ranked sixth in the world prior to The Ashes, many predicted defeat at the hands of Australia.

Instead, England ran riot and regained their swagger.

If this truly is a new dawn for the England team, we’ll see it this winter. If there are still areas that need work, they’ll be exposed by two teams eager to make the most of their own home advantage.

It’s tough to win away from home these days. Michael Clarke alluded to this as the Ashes slipped from his grasp at Trent Bridge. Few touring sides come away victorious now.

England have the tools to succeed. Over the next six months we’ll see whether they have the metal to return to the summit of world cricket as well.


About Rob

Software engineer by day, hockey writer and podcaster for One Puck Short and InGoal Magazine by night, Rob also blogs about cricket for One Stump Short.

Posted on August 11, 2015, in England, International Cricket, Pakistan, South Africa, Winter Tours and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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