England in good shape for Ashes after winter tours, says Mike Atherton
Last Updated: 27/03/13 6:50am
England's epic escape in Auckland wrapped up a tumultuous winter in which they lost their ICC World Twenty20 crown, won a Test series in India for the first time in 28 years and were held 0-0 by New Zealand - the eighth-best Test team in the world.
But that's only part of the story. Before the home international season gets underway on May 16 with the first of two Tests against New Zealand - the precursor to back-to-back Ashes series, in England and Australia respectively - Mike Atherton, Mark Butcher and Angus Fraser shared their thoughts on an eventful six months...
ICC World Twenty20
England opened the defence of their World T20 crown with a 116-run victory over Afghanistan but lost to India by 90 runs in Colombo before suffering a Super Eight defeat to the West Indies. Although they saw off New Zealand by six wickets in Pallekelle they were dumped out by Sri Lanka, who went on to contest, but lose, the final against the West Indies. Match report
All eyes were on captain Stuart Broad but the absence of Kevin Pietersen, left out of the squad after the South African text message furore, was inescapable...
ATHERS: "It was a good tournament - the T20 tournament always seems to be a slightly better tournament than the 50-over one because it's a bit shorter and snappier - so it was good fun to be there but it wasn't a particularly robust defence by England. It was very curious to see England's best Twenty20 player, their most destructive player - the one that all of the opposition teams would have feared - in the studio for the host broadcaster when he should have been out on the field for England."
England in India - Test series
England - led by new Test captain Alastair Cook - overcame their biggest challenge of the winter by beating India 2-1 on the sub-continent, a hugely impressive achievement, particularly as they were crushed by nine wickets in the opening Test of four in Ahmedabad.
Pietersen, re-integrated back into the team, scored a brilliant hundred in Mumbai as England won by 10 wickets and the tourists then took control of the series with a seven-wicket win in Kolkata before the final Test of the series was drawn in Nagpur.
ATHERS: "Alastair Cook had captained England in a couple of other Test matches but that was the start of his tenure proper where he would have felt ownership of the team. It wasn't all hunky-dory for England at the end of the summer - they'd been beaten by South Africa, there was the Pietersen issue bubbling away - so Cook's first job was to sort that out and I think it was much easier for Pietersen to come back in once Andrew Strauss had stepped away. Alastair Cook thought 'we're a better side with him in it and I want the best chance of winning in India', so bringing Pietersen back was a sensible move.
"We wondered how Cook might go under the responsibility of captaincy and how his own game would hold up but it held up wonderfully. It was one of the great performances from an England captain-batsman. His second innings hundred in Ahmedabad really sent the message to the team that there was no reason to fear Ravichandran Ashwin and Pragyan Oja, that it would be difficult but not impossible.
"Cook (562 runs at 80.28) and Pietersen (338 at 48.28) then re-iterated that message in Mumbai. Cook had two top-class spinners to call upon. Monty Panesar, when it turns, is probably more of a dangerous bowler than Graeme Swann, who is probably more suited to the pitches we've seen in New Zealand where you have to bowl with more variety, nous and thought. But when the ball spins, Panesar is a very challenging bowler indeed."
BUTCH: "England won against all odds. If you go 1-0 down in India, history tells you that the touring team is toast. You play on flatter and flatter pitches, their batsmen rack up hundreds and hundreds of runs and you stand absolutely no chance of getting back in the series. Perhaps India were more interested in avenging the 4-0 drubbing they received in England and decided they wanted to try and repeat the dose.
"England learned quickly and played two specialist spinners in the second Test match and Pietersen, fully re-integrated back into the side, played one of the knocks of the year - perhaps of the decade - to get them in a position to win that one and from that point the momentum shifted. England played absolutely superbly and thoroughly deserved their 2-1 victory."
GUS: "If you look back to the previous summer when England played India and England tried to produce some pitches that suited them - slightly grassy and green to take on India - India tried to reverse the tables by deliberately playing on turning pitches and England outplayed them at their own game, which was the real satisfaction. England's batsmen handled Ashwin and Oja superbly and Panesar and Swann looked the better act. It was a magnificent achievement for an England side to go to India and out spin them and outplay them against spin. I was impressed by how effective James Anderson was on the sub-continent (12 wickets at 30.25). There were two or three occasions on this tour when he was irreplaceable and showed what a wonderful bowler he is. You can look at this series as favourably as some of the Ashes wins that we talk about and celebrate - I think it was up there with those."
ATHERS: "The selection of Joe Root was a prescient decision because he came in at Nagpur on what was admittedly a very, very flat pitch and immediately looked at home. He looks an all-round player. We've seen him emerge with a few tricks in one-day cricket and he's shown, both in Nagpur and in New Zealand, that he's got a rock-solid temperament. It's a big test for any player to transfer from the county to the international game. They are clearly good players because the selectors wouldn't have them there if they hadn't shown them something technically or scored lots of runs, but can they cope with that step up in grade? Root certainly looked like he could."
England in India - Limited overs series
England embarked on a new era as head coach Andy Flower handed control of both the T20 and ODI teams to former spinner Ashley Giles. England drew the two-match T20 series, winning by six wickets in Mumbai after India took the honours by five wickets in Pune. But India won the ODI series 3-2 even though England gained the upper hand with a nine-run victory in Rajkot. India responded with three wins on the bounce in Kochi (by 127 runs), Ranchi (by seven wickets) and Mohali (by five wickets) before England smartened up the scoreline with a seven-wicket success in Dharamsala.
ATHERS: "It was a very difficult start for Giles because one-day cricket is almost bigger than Test cricket in India now and they are a tough team to beat at home but I thought he did a decent job. There were one or two comments here in New Zealand when the press pack have asked about the difference between Giles and Flower - one or two players have said that it's much more relaxed under Ashley Giles, which has been interesting, so that could be an issue as we go forward into the English summer. But overall I think England feel they've got two good men there who will look after the respective teams. Flower is still there with overall control and responsibility but they are trying to make better use of their resources.
England in New Zealand - limited overs and Test series
England gained the upper-hand in the T20 series with a 40-run win in Auckland and they took the decider with a comprehensive victory in Wellington after New Zealand hit back to win by 55 runs in Hamilton. England also won the ODI series 2-1 after recovering from a three-wicket defeat in Hamilton to win in Napier and Auckland, by eight and five wickets respectively.
England went into the Test series as overwhelming favourites but found themselves on the ropes in Auckland after the weather-interrupted Tests in Dunedin and Wellington ended in draws. Matt Prior led the resistance as the tourists, nine-down, held out on the final day.
So were there any encouraging signs?
BUTCH: "I was sceptical as to whether it was a good decision for Nick Compton to make his debut on the Indian trip - I didn't see the need to play an orthodox debutant opening batsman on that particular tour, especially with Joe Root waiting in the wings as a natural opener. However, those two back-to-back centuries have perhaps pencilled his name in at the top of the order for the Ashes, which would be a lifetime's ambition achieved."
GUS: "Broad bowled very well in Wellington, where he took six-for. He's not got as many runs as he would have liked but he is a big part of England's plan. He fits well into the attack because you've got the height and aggression of Finn and the skill and swing of James Anderson. Broad has golden spells where he just seems to race through a side and produce a wonderful performance. You need one of those figures - someone who produces something when you need it. As long as he doesn't get distracted and carried away with things as he seems to at times, and continues to bowl with controlled aggression, he's a valuable member of the attack."
ATHERS: "Matt Prior has proved that he's world-class - he's a terrific cricketer in all aspects. We saw in the third Test, in particular, that his wicket-keeping is top-notch and he's an excellent batsman to have coming in at number seven because of the way that he plays as much as anything. He's always full of bristling aggression and looking to take the game away from the opposition. He's completely selfless - he doesn't play for himself, but plays for the team at every opportunity. He's now vice-captain and I agree with that because I think he's got a better instinct about what's happening than Alastair Cook, so he's a very important right-hand man."
Looking ahead to the Ashes...
ATHERS: There are one or two question marks hanging over this England side. The batting line-up looks less strong than it did without Pietersen, so will he be back for the Ashes? It might be touch-and-go. Will Swann be back for the Ashes? You can never be quite sure how you will go after an operation. Plus, what are England's bowling reserves like? Will Tim Bresnan and Chris Tremlett be fit? Can Graham Onions rediscover his form? I think England really fancy Tremlett and if he's back and fit, I wouldn't be surprised to see him back. England are doing ok. They are still a reasonably settled and confident side and they are obviously in a better shape than Australia, who look in disarray."
Sky Sports' live cricket schedule for 2013-14 includes both Ashes series, all England's home Investec Test Series, NatWest Series One-Day Internationals and NatWest International T20 matches against New Zealand and Australia, plus The ICC Champions Trophy.
Sky Sports will also show each county at least three times this summer, with 60 live fixtures from the Yorkshire Bank 40, LV=County Championship and Friends Life t20. In addition, our cameras will be at Essex when they host the England team for their Ashes warm-up match.