Future looks bright for England
Posted in England v South Africa - 2008
The international summer may have ended on a rather wet note with the abandonment of the final NatWest Series encounter, but there is little chance of that dampening English spirits.
Those in the dressing room and beyond can be immensely proud of England’s performances over the last month, with a comprehensive series triumph wrapped up long before rain intervened at the SWALEC Stadium today.
Only the miserable Cardiff weather prevented England chasing a fifth successive victory over the team ranked second in the world, a side upon whom the hosts had administered a “drubbing”, in the words of Kevin Pietersen.
England’s new captain has inevitably, and deservedly, received the bulk of the praise for orchestrating such a dramatic upturn in the team’s one-day fortunes, but the list of positives to come out of the limited-overs series extends way beyond the man in charge.
Andrew Flintoff’s excellence with bat - he averaged 187 over three innings - and ball - 10 wickets at less than 13 apiece - capped his recovery from a succession of injuries as well as reaffirming his status as a world-class all-rounder.
If Johan Botha’s claim that Flintoff’s presence being the difference between the two sides was overly simplistic, there is no doubting that the all-rounder adds a dimension to England’s play that no other cricketer in the country can match.
Promoted to number five, Flintoff is sandwiched by Pietersen and Paul Collingwood in a middle order as powerful as any on the planet.
They are preceded by Owais Shah, who showed glimpses of the talent that has drawn such praise from Pietersen without fully nailing down his place at the fall of the first wicket.
Above him, Matt Prior and Ian Bell went a long way to ending the debate about England’s best opening partnership courtesy of stands of 77, 85 (unbroken) and 101 in the first three matches.
With newcomer Samit Patel and Luke Wright - genuine batsmen both - at seven and eight respectively, England’s batting is also notable for its depth, although they were called upon no more than three times between them during the series.
Other than James Anderson, who bowled just 20 overs and claimed a solitary wicket, England’s bowlers were sensational.
Stuart Broad bowled aggressively with the new ball - witness his match-winning haul of 5-23 at Trent Bridge - and intelligently with the old, while left-arm spinner Patel’s 5-41 return at the Brit Oval more than justified his inclusion ahead of Graeme Swann.
Yet the potency of England’s attack is defined by Flintoff and Steve Harmison, as threatening a pair of change bowlers as any side could wish to call on, and one of the main reasons why South Africa topped 170 only once in the series.
As ever, there are caveats: South Africa’s dwindling motivation after they achieved their main goal of winning the Test series; the effects of a draining two-month tour; and injuries to key players, most noticeably captain Graeme Smith.
But whatever the mental and physical state of the tourists, England’s one-day credentials have risen sharply in the space of two weeks - they now sit third in the ICC rankings - and arguably the most encouraging aspect of their NatWest Series triumph was the manner in which Pietersen challenged his players to extend their upward curve to the tours of India and West Indies over the winter.
“I don't live with any comfort zones,” he stressed in the immediate aftermath of the Cardiff wash-out. “There's no point living if you don't want to be the best person you can possibly be.”
The early signs are that the England players are fast coming round to Pietersen’s way of thinking.