2012 was always going to be a tough year for the England cricket team. With two subcontinent tours and a home series against the number two test team in the world, it's a tough line up, even without the added pressure of their recently attained number one test team status.
After what was arguably one of the best year's in England cricket history in 2011- winning the Ashes down under, test and ODI series victories at home against India and Sri Lanka along with their new lofty status - nobody could have predicted what was to come at the start of 2012.
It was the tour that England should have won. Pakistan were undisputed underdogs going into the series: their squad in apparent disarray, tarnished by the prosecution of three players jailed for corruption in the sport. However, they surprised everyone with their ruthless excellence throughout the test series in the UAE. Not since 1907 have a team won a test match when posting less than 100 in the first innings, a feat that Pakistan achieved to complete the whitewash in the final test.
They destroyed England, their weapon of choice: spin bowling, Ajmal and Rehman the spinning stars. So poor was the England performance against spin that 48 of the 60 England wickets during the series fell to spinners. Granted, this was partly due to the number of spinners fielded by Pakistan, but this offers a thin veil of excuse for the England top six.
It leaves plenty to prove in Sri Lanka for the England team as well as for individual players, not least the captain. Andrew Strauss was amongst those who struggled in the UAE against spin, giving all but one of his wickets in the series to twirlers.
Time to look forward for England however. If nothing else, their thorough turning over in the UAE may serve as a swift kick up the backside to the players and the management. An advance party travelled to Sri Lanka ahead of the main squad to adapt to conditions in the sub continent.
Newly appointed full time batting coach Graham Gooch and Strauss led Ian Bell, Steven Davies, Monty Panesar, Samit Patel, Matt Prior and James Tredwell in a training camp, involving concentrated work for the batsmen on playing spin.
No drastic changes emerged in the announcement of the test squad for Sri Lanka, that's not Flower's style. The omission of Morgan was a good decision. He has rarely looked a test player and, with only 98 runs in the limited overs games in the UAE (an average of 14) it could be argued that his test failures are having an effect on what has always been considered his forte. His decision to go the IPL in a few weeks will not help his cause for re-entering consideration for the test team. However, team director Andy Flower is not ruling him out completely. "I still think he has a very exciting future in test cricket for England," Flower said. "He's only 25 years old, and he's a very talented, confident and dangerous player. If he can get his game in order, and the next time he gets a chance in test cricket he grabs it with both hands, then he'll fulfill his wishes for his cricket career and England will be a better side for it."
Ravi Bopara, included in the test squad for Sri Lanka, is a player who fell out of favour but has come back stronger, both mentally and in his game. He must surely have his eye on the obvious hole left by Paul Collingwood in the test team; a batsman who is capable of a significant contribution with the ball. He may slot in at no6 if England choose to go with a 4 man bowling attack.
He'll be in direct competition with Samit Patel, who impressed enough in the limited overs games in the UAE to earn his debut test call up in Sri Lanka. Patel offers a stronger bowling option, and is a decent player of spin with the bat. James Tredwell is in the squad as potential cover for Graeme Swann, but unlikely to appear alongside his fellow off break bowler in the final 11.
The conditions in Sri Lanka will be more extreme than those of the UAE, a magnification of all the aspects that troubled England. Andy Flower sees that as a good thing: "It's nice to get tested in similar conditions straight away, that will test whether we have actually learnt some different skills and a different method against spin."
The bottom line is: if the England batsmen have not made vast improvements to their batting against spin, they face humiliation in Sri Lanka. England have to prove that they deserve their no1 title by competing against the top teams in all conditions, and with a consistency that was starkly lacking in the UAE. Although never a team to rest on their laurels upon achieving success (they moved on quickly from their Ashes victory last year with their sights on the no1 spot), it is now time to prove that achieving that top spot was not a more satisfying target than maintaining it.
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