In test cricket at least, 2011 was a virtually perfect year for the England cricket team. We completed a stunning Ashes victory, strolled past Sri Lanka, and pulverised India. On the way we became the number-one ranked test side – effectively the world champions. Virtually all of our players were in superb form throughout. So can 2012 be anything like as good?
For any England supporter, it feels strange to assume or expect success. Conditioned as we are both by national character and the history of our team, we expect disaster at ever turn. If we ever get too cocky, our instincts tell us, life will soon smack us in the chops. So while a part of us quite reasonably envisages sustained excellence for the England side, another part fears it may all have been too good to last. As people never tire of telling us, it’s much easier to get to the top than stay there (although West Indies and Australia managed it well enough).
Let’s look at 2012’s fixture list. First up, beginning on 17th January, is the three-test series against Pakistan in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. It’s hard to know exactly what to expect. England have never played test cricket in the Gulf before, and Pakistan, while resurgent over the last year, still change their line-up more often than Mark Nicholas looks in a mirror.
Our view-from-the-armchair hunch is that two factors should decide the rubber: compiling big totals, and finding wickets in a flurry. The former was our trademark in 2011 but not against a spinner of any class; Saeed Ajmal is more potent. The latter factor will be our bigger challenge, and Tim Bresnan (assuming he’s fully fit) might become the key man.
Even a grave pessimist like me expects England to do enough to win the series, but you don’t need much imagination to see how we could come a cropper. In a three test clash on slow wickets, a single batting collapse or obdurate stand could be the entire difference between winning or losing. And if we do lose, or draw, get ready for a media roasting. Now we’re top of the tree, expectations are almost impossibly high, and honest defeat will be portrayed as the product of hubris and complacency.
The tests are followed by three T20s and four ODIs. It would be very handy if we could win the 50 over series; the major copybook blot of 2011 was our general uselessness in one-day cricket away from home, andAsia in particular. Andy Flower is finding this just as tough a nut to crack as Duncan Fletcher did, and we’re still nowhere near knowing who our best XI are than we did during the World Cup. Putting that right is perhaps the signal task for 2012.
Moving on, in late March we have two tests in Sri Lanka– a nation we’ve struggled in ever since the remarkable win of 2000/01. No Vaas or Murali this time, of course, without whom their bowling looked limp last summer, but can we really get twenty wickets on the flat pitches of Galle and Colombo? This might be easier to call after the Lankans’ series against South Africa is complete.
Our home international season kicks off in May with one of modern cricket’s less intriguing contests: West Indies in England in May. Historically these have been ludicrously one-sided series; in 2009 we won by ten wickets, and an innings and 83 runs. Expect small crowds, cheap wickets forEngland’s bowlers, and a general sense of most people not even noticing the cricket season has begun.
As has been well-documented, the 2012 schedule is fatuous, and the Olympics is no excuse. After the third Windies test ends, around the 11th June, the prime weeks of midsummer are given over to eight ODIs and a T20, before test cricket finally resumes on 19th July for a derisory three match series against South Africa.
This ought to be the marquee event: Englandv the Saffers is always box office – loads of needle, and taut, hard-fought cricket – let alone that this is effectively the world title clash between the two best sides in the world. To spice things up further, half our team were born in Biltong-land, a fact they never stop carping on about. But this time the series is badly devalued – for reasons already mentioned, with only three tests, luck can play too large a role, especially if weather intervenes.
From an England fans’ perspective, this is the one we really, really want to win. A slip in Dubai or Galle makes little odds, butS outh Africa matter, on every level. If it goes wrong, could you possibly endure the patronising smurk on Graeme Smith’s face?
How will it go? On paper, we should beat them, just – and our prediction is we will. South Africahave played hot-and-cold so far this winter, losing matches they shouldn’t have done against Australia and Sri Lanka. Their batting could just be creakier than they’d like to think. Vernon Philander might be brilliant or might have beginner’s luck; it’s too early to say. Dale Steyn is of course the main threat, and one thing England rarely had to contend with in 2011 was genuine pace bowling of sustained quality.
After the tests – hooray, another six ODIs and three T20s. As if people really want to watch all of that right at the end of the season, post-test matches. In October, we attempt to successfully defend our world T20 title, after which four tests in India beckon. But that’s getting too far ahead of ourselves.
Apart from specific results, there’s much for particular individuals to achieve – Alastair Cook as ODI captain, Swann against right handers, Eoin Morgan cementing his place, and the competition for fast-bowling places. We’ll look at all of that in more detail soon. In the meantime, we’d like your thoughts and predictions for 2012. Here are ours:
Pakistan v England England to sneak a 1-0 win after two score-bore-draws.
Sri Lanka v England A 1-0 home win, after the spinners scare us at Colombo, andGalle ends in stalemate.
England v West Indies 3-0 to us, probably all over within four days each time.
England v South Africa 2-1 to us, if our first-choice squad is all available.