England chase elusive dream of greatness

Published: Tuesday, May 9, 2006, 23:53 [IST]
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London:In retrospect, regime change in any arena can be simple. The trick is to secure permanence.

England's 2-1 Ashes triumph over Australia last year after 16 desolate years was a deserved conclusion to a series already acclaimed as the greatest in Test cricket history.

Yet once the afterglow had faded the Herculean task facing Michael Vaughan's men was unmistakable.

If England are to prove they are a great side, rather than a team capable of isolated great performances, they must beat the Australians on their home grounds in the Ashes rematch this year.

Since toppling West Indies in the Caribbean 11 years ago, Australia have become the world number one in both the long and short versions of the game. Their words and deeds since England captain Vaughan trumped his counterpart Ricky Ponting indicate clearly that they believe 2005 was a mistake which will be corrected on home turf.

Ponting has led the way with eight centuries in crushing series victories over South Africa (twice) and West Indies and the message from the antipodes has been unmistakeable.

''The Australian side is an amazing side,'' opener Matthew Hayden told this month's Wisden Cricketer magazine. ''England are a very good side but Australia are better.'' England start their home season against Sri Lanka at Lord's on Thursday without Vaughan, who is recovering from another injury to his troubled right knee. After a three-Test series they then meet Pakistan over four Tests.

BIGGER CHALLENGEPakistan, a team often less than the sum of their parts, apart from the brief era when Imran Khan led them with a blend of personal inspiration and autocratic hauteur, are the bigger challenge.

They showed, though, in their 2-0 series win over England late last year that they are now the most naturally gifted side in world cricket with explosive batsmen backed up by genuine pace and dangerous wrist spin. They will provide just the opposition England need before they cross the equator to a land thirsting for revenge.

First England have to deal with Sri Lanka, a side in transition further handicapped by touring during the English spring when the trees are heavy with blossom and the green pitches are the antithesis of the dust bowls they exploit at home.

The immediate post-Ashes results during England's off-season trips to Pakistan and India will hardly have Ponting and his men staring gloomily into their lager.

After they were beaten by Pakistan, England trailed India 1-0 before a makeshift side levelled the series in Mumbai. The latter result is the reason for English optimism after ending the winter 1-3 behind their sub-continental opponents. England would have retained an unchanged side for the first time in 120 years against Australia had not Simon Jones limped off in the fourth test at Trent Bridge with an ankle injury.

A subsequent operation kept the Welsh fast bowler out of both tours. By the business end of the India tour he had been joined by Ashes stalwarts Vaughan, fast bowler Steve Harmison and left-arm spinner Ashley Giles who had suffered various injuries while Marcus Trescothick had flown home for unspecified personal reasons.

Flintoff, elevated to the captaincy, took his new responsibilities in his giant stride, showing the capacity to lift his team mates with sound if conventional leadership while maintaining his status as the world's best all-rounder.

GENUINE MERITEngland levelled the series in the final test and looked back with satisfaction on the performance of several new boys who showed sceptical outsiders, not only based in Australia, that the old country was now producing a stream of cricketers possessing genuine merit.

Alastair Cook, who will bat in the problematic number three position at Lord's, scored a century in his maiden Test and when he pulled out of the Mumbai match Owais Shah confounded those who thought he had frittered away his abundant talent with a confident and composed half-century.

Of equal significance was the performance of Monty Panesaar, the first Sikh to represent England. Making his debut in the spiritual home of spin bowling, Panesaar replicated the control of Giles while demonstrating the ability to defeat the best by dismissing the great Sachin Tendulkar and the accomplished Rahul Dravid with teasing flight and sharp spin.

England's belief that they could beat Australia last year was based in part on an adaptation of the ancient boxing adage that, other things being equal, a good young fighter will beat a good old fighter.

The months since the Ashes victory have only strengthened that conviction.

In the second Test against India, England fielded a side whose 11 members were all under 30 for the first time since 1960. Against South Africa, the only man in the Australia side under 30 was Brett Lee, who turned 29 last November.

In addition, Australia have reverted to players who failed to sparkle in England, notably Jason Gillespie whose remarkable double century as a nightwatchman against Bangladesh cannot obscure the lack of snap and devil in his bowling last year.

The key for England, as Vaughan and coach Duncan Fletcher acknowledge, is making sure that their best XI report for duty at the Gabba on November 23 fit and ready for the ultimate cricketing challenge.

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