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Page last updated at 07:51 GMT, Wednesday, 24 December 2008

England after India: the verdict

By Tom Fordyce

Another Test series, another series lost.

England, quite rightly, drew praise around the world for returning to India to play the series at all.

Andrew Strauss and Ian Bell
One man is on the way up, the other on the way down

For that alone, skipper Kevin Pietersen and his team end the year in enormous credit. But from a purely cricketing perspective, what shape has the series left them in?

The 1-0 defeat continues a run that has seen their Test standing gradually eroded since the peak of the Ashes win three summers ago.

Six of their last 12 series have now been lost, with three of the four wins coming against weak New Zealand and West Indies teams. All five of the most recent series against the top four ranked nations ended in defeat.

With next summer's Ashes dominating every England fan's horizon, it does not bode well. In 14 series leading up to the famous summer of 2005, England came out on top in eight of them, losing just three.

Then again, was a 1-0 defeat that bad a result? Australia, let us not forget, were dismantled in the preceding series in India. England went into the first Test in the most difficult circumstances imaginable, without the benefit of any match practice in the right conditions.

Despite that, they went into the fourth innings in Chennai with a lead of 387 runs. That they subsequently lost had as much to do with an outstanding run-chase led by Sachin Tendulkar's wonderful century as anything they did wrong.

Pietersen was quite rightly distraught that his side failed to press home their advantage, but it could have been worse; he could have been in Ricky Ponting's spikes in Perth, seeing an even bigger total overhauled on home soil against South Africa.

Of the 12 players who featured for England, four players came out of the series with reputations enhanced, three weakened.


Andrew Strauss's pared-down style might not be as aesthetically pleasing as his previous, more swashbuckling incarnation, but it works.

A return of 252 runs at an average of 84, with centuries in both innings of the first Test, was all the more impressive considering his complete lack of preparation time on Indian wickets - unlike most of his team-mates, he had played no part in the ignominious one-day series.

For Ian Bell, the opposite was true. Peter Moores defended his number three afterwards as a young batsman still learning the game, but the stats tell a different story.

Bell might still be just 26 years old, but he's a veteran of 45 Tests. And 49 runs in his four innings in India reflect a poor return.

In 81 Test innings, Bell has scored just eight centuries. More worrying still, he appears to be regressing. From his last 38 innings for England he has just two centuries; in the 28 innings before that, he had five three-figure scores.

You can be as good a fielder as you like - and Bell was England's star performer in that discipline in India - but when your contribution elsewhere is minimal, your place must come under threat.

The question is, from whom? Owais Shah has been knocking on the door for so long his knuckles must be bleeding, but the name being whispered about in the dark corners where journalists gather is not his but Michael Vaughan's.

KP likes him, say the rumours, he's still got a central contract, and if you're looking ahead to the Ashes, Vaughan averages 47 against the Aussies, compared to Bell's 25.

At the same time, what logic is there in recalling a man who averaged a measly 24 in Tests and 23 in county cricket in 2008, and who hasn't hit a single ball in anger since?

The other big decision for the England selectors before they announce the squad to tour the West Indies on 29 December concerns Steve Harmison, brought back with such success for the final Test of the summer but so predictably disappointing this winter.

Graeme Swann
Swann celebrates his wicket-laden first over in Chennai

Moores insisted that Harmison was left out of the second Test for lack of form rather than attitude, but the fast bowler's slumped shoulders in Chennai told you as much as his lack of rhythm and match figures of 1-90.

Do you pick a man for the Windies tour just because his record there is so good (23 wickets at 14 apiece in the four-Test series in 2004) or because you hope, despite all the recent evidence, that he can be your attack's Ashes spearhead in six months' time?

The more positive outcome of the Indian experience is that another returning star is definitely back to his best.

Andrew Flintoff's seven series wickets at an average of 29 each only tell half the story. Just as important were the 84 overs bowled, in two Tests of toil over such a short period of time.

On low, slow pitches, Flintoff generated consistent pace and aggression, terrifying Yuvraj Singh, finding sideways movement and doing it all without a flicker of pain from that unreliable ankle.

He even started scoring runs again, in the sort of controlled manner that suggests he might be worthy of the number six slot for the first time in a long while.

Graeme Swann too nailed down his place on the New Year tour. England's leading wicket-taker - hats off to anyone who predicted that - generated more spin than Harbhajan Singh, let along Monty Panesar, and took big wickets (Dravid, Tendulkar, Gambhir).

Monty, take note - if not of what a Test debutant can do, then of your own figures of 0-105 in the fourth innings on a turning pitch on the subcontinent. Adil Rashid is already in the camp, and he's closing in.

What of the man at the middle of it all?

Pietersen guaranteed himself a successful series by ensuring it took place at all. Captaincy is as much about leading from the front off the pitch as on it, and his standing grew commensurably.

On the field of play, his education as skipper continued. All batsmen fail, but not all bounce back immediately with a big ton at a key stage. If some of his field settings, particularly for Panesar, raised eyebrows, the West Indies tour should be a forgiving place to continue the learning curve.

For the captain and his team, however, time is in short supply. After a spectacular start to Pietersen's reign, he's now failed to win a match in his last eight in charge. England fans might forgive an away loss to India, but they'll expect something a whole lot more impressive next summer.

Between now and the first ball of the Ashes in Cardiff are just six Tests, four away and two home, all against the Windies. The clock is ticking.

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see also
England spirit pleases Pietersen
23 Dec 08 |  England
India v England photos
23 Dec 08 |  England
Who should take on the Aussies?
23 Dec 08 |  Cricket
Jonathan Agnew column
22 Dec 08 |  England

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