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England rediscover reasons to be cheerful

Published: Tuesday, August 15, 2006, 23:53 [IST]
 
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London:An Oval Test at the end of summer with the series already decided is normally an occasion for reflection and a final chance to pay homage to those in the visiting side who will not tour England again.

This year, far from being a last act, the fourth Test against Pakistan from Thursday will serve as an overture to the Ashes rematch against Australia starting in three months' time.

In eight days of concentrated cricket, England have shrugged off the prolonged hangover from last year's incredible Ashes victory to take an unbeatable 2-0 lead over a Pakistan side ranked second only to Australia.

Last year's heroics have quickly attained a mythic quality, encouraged by those south of the equator who believe England have merely borrowed the Ashes before they are restored to their rightful owners.

Australian scepticism has been boosted by the disparity between the two sides' records since the 2005 series climaxed at the Oval last September.

Before taking their long winter break, Australia had won 11 of 12 Tests with one draw. England's record is four wins with as many losses.

The nadir for England came after the 1-1 draw with Sri Lanka when they were pasted to all parts of the country in a 5-0 one-day series thrashing by the same opponents.

A change in perception for a side struggling to recapture last year's sustained excellence followed the news that captain Andy Flintoff would play no part in the Pakistan series. At the time it seemed a final body blow for England who had already lost Ashes captain Michael Vaughan, fast bowler Simon Jones and left-arm spinner Ashley Giles.

Instead, confirmation that there is now genuine quality in the county game and gritty resilience in the national team came when England, led by Andrew Strauss, stopped lamenting what they had lost and grasped the opportunity before them.

Alastair Cook, an enviably mature 21-year-old, has slotted swiftly into the number three spot formerly occupied by Vaughan with three centuries in his first eight Tests.

Ian Bell, who looked overawed against Australia last year, took over from Flintoff at number six against Pakistan and stroked three increasingly assured centuries in as many Tests.

Sajid Mahmood had struggled since wrecking the Sri Lankans at Lord's in the first Test of the summer with reverse swing at high speed. The selectors kept faith and were rewarded when Mahmood took four for 22 in Pakistan's second innings in the third Test at Headingley, regularly touching 90 mph (145 kph) without apparent strain.

Finally there is Monty Panesar, the personality of the summer and already the most accomplished left-arm spinner to represent England since Derek Underwood almost a quarter of a century ago. None of the above quartet would have realistically hoped to represent their country this year if the Ashes heroes had been available.

Evidence that the selectors have embraced the need for change when necessary came when they dropped wicketkeeper Geraint Jones, who has failed to deliver with the bat this year. Chris Read, omitted in favour of Jones because he was not making the runs required of an international keeper, struck 38 and 55 in the third Test victory at Headingley and kept immaculately.

Strauss has given the selectors a happy dilemma. He was an increasingly frustrated figure in the one-day series against Sri Lanka and his captaincy was understandably conservative in the drawn first Test at Lord's against Pakistan.

England won the second Test within three days, primarily due to a rejuvenated Steve Harmison ably abetted by Panesar.

Strauss now looked like a man in charge, an impression reinforced in the third Test victory where his field placements were shrewd and the pressure relentless. He also showed the inner steel necessary for the task, scoring two centuries in his first three Tests in charge.

Flintoff, who provided the vital difference between England and Australia last year, was inspirational as skipper and all-rounder in England's series-tying draw in Mumbai this year.

Although the selectors have stated that he will lead the side again once he fully recovers from a heel operation, a third win in a row for Strauss would force a reappraisal.

The Oval pitch, where the bowlers have to toil for their wickets, will ask further questions of the reshaped England lineup. Despite Harmison's six for 19 in the second Test victory, he still seems a bowler of moods who does not impose himself on the game when his rhythm is wrong.

Paul Collingwood is not a fifth bowler at Test level and a batsman will probably make room for Flintoff in Australia. Also in the absence of Giles, the England tail starts at eight, which is too long for comfort.

Still, there are now reasons to be cheerful and England supporters can relish rather than dread the Australian campaign starting with the first Test in Brisbane on November 23.

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