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Phoenix Rising

 

OK, so it's not like-for-like preparation, and you know when you're playing against a team whose board forgets even to renew the domain name registration for its official website (above - image captured at 11pm BST, 18th May; see detail and update below) that perhaps you're not dealing with international sport at the highest level. And I admit that since a fortnight ago, when I was thinking entirely the opposite, not a great deal has changed. But there've been signs, in the demolition of the West Indies, that England may be gearing up to make at least a halfway decent fight of the Ashes after all.

The cliches are legion, and the one about only being able to beat the opposition you're facing looms large. And it's true that the West Indies have looked a pretty forlorn side at Lord's and Chester-le-Street. World cricket needs a strong West Indies, and for those of us weaned on the teams of Lloyd and Richards, Holding, Garner and Marshall, or even less potent but still energised incarnations featuring Walsh, Ambrose and Lara, the present vintage still falls a long way short. And, yes, the self-evident low morale, the body-blows sustained by those members of the side who took their Stanford million and reinvested it in the Texan's defunct bank, and the ill-timed (if somewhat selectively reported) comments between Tests from captain Chris Gayle all fed in to a mindset that helped defeat them before they'd walked out on the first morning.

But this is no Zimbabwe or Bangladesh: England had just lost a Test series to this side a matter of weeks earlier, they have some potent if as yet raw bowling talent at their disposal, Shivnarine Chanderpaul didn't get to second spot in the world rankings by accident, and in Gayle and Ramnaresh Sarwan he has comrades in the batting line-up who'd be there or thereabouts were they eligible for any other Test-playing nation right now. So while on the one hand I have plenty of time for the view, succinctly expressed by Rhodri Marsden on Twitter, that we perhaps shouldn't be reading too much into this comprehensive victory, I also feel that the result is far from meaningless.

England have often fallen foul of a lack of incision; have wobbled and staggered over the finish line rather than strode comfortably to victory. Australia, of course, have made a habit of the clinical, merciless finish: if that's something Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower are instilling in the side, then it can't have come at a better time. Two emphatic wins in two matches where significant time was lost to the weather feels like pretty good preparation for the Old Enemy to me. And at its heart has been bowling of considerable hostility, from James Anderson and Stuart Broad in particular, while Graham Onions' emergence as a Test player gives us interesting options. There will be those who argue that Ravi Bopara's elevation to the select group of Englishmen to score centuries in three successive Tests was more down to good fortune in who he played those matches against rather than proof that he's up there with Sutcliffe, Compton, Boycott and Gooch - certainly, when informed of his feat by Mark Nicholas after his ton at Durham, the likeable and down-to-earth Bopara was the first to say he felt uncomfortable even being mentioned in the same breath. Cook's big century couldn't have come at a better time, and the only serious management worry in the batting department must now be over Kevin Pietersen's post-IPL form.

The wins have also given Strauss and his fellow selectors a raft of the sort of problems they could only have dreamed of at the fractious start to the year. Ian Bell has responded to being dropped in the best possible way: scoring lots of runs in County cricket, and earning a recall to the squad. Hopefully continued good form for Warwickshire will keep him in the frame and help end the constant but surely unhelpful calls for the return of Michael Vaughan. The former captain may have one of the best techniques in world cricket and on his day remains a potent force: but selecting him for this year's Ashes would be as much of a step backwards as picking Graham Thorpe ahead of Pietersen would have been in 2005. (I speak as a huge fan of Thorpe, and someone who thought not picking someone with his grit, talent and record against the Aussies was a mistake.) It would give the Australians heart: "They're so worried they'd rather pick based on past glories" isn't the sort of message we should be sending out.

Then there's Andrew Flintoff: still vital to the balance of the side, and presumably looking at one last hurrah before retiring from the longest and most intense form of the game, his selection is as vital as it is risky. If he can be nursed through the summer and even occasionally reach the heights he scaled in 2005, it will be a considerable boost to England's chances. A decision has to be taken about spin, too: to me, Panesar still offers more than Swann, and I think you should pick your best bowlers, not the bowlers who can also bat a bit. The Australians have a healthy regard for his bowling, too.

Australia are not the unit they were four years ago, and certainly not the wounded animal bent on revenge that tore through a bedraggled England in 06/7. Any side would struggle to replace five world-beaters at once, and when all of those five have strong claims to a place among the greatest ever to play the game (the cases for Warne, McGrath and Gilchrist are unarguable: but Hayden and Langer would have shone in any era) it's clear that whoever comes in has an almost impossible job. The results against South Africa were impressive and certainly show that the side cannot be underestimated: but this is a team greater than the sum of its parts, and that wasn't the case in 2005. They remain formidable adversaries, but this should be a more even contest: their aura has been dimmed and, while England don't look as strong as the 2005 side would prove to be, Strauss and Flower already have more and better options than appeared to be the case even three months ago. I'll probably live to regret such air-headed optimism, but let's not write them off just yet.

UPDATE: Just had another look at www.windiescricket.com and it's back up - though as of now (11.15am, May 19) still under the impression that it's Sunday, and their boys can save the second Test.





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