It’s a typically English sporting paradigm: off-the-field events overshadowing performances on it.
The continuous hubbub surrounding the Kevin Pietersen ‘will he, won’t he’ saga is in danger of casting a black cloud over the English summer; a season which brings an intriguing mini-series against New Zealand as well as a hotly-anticipated Ashes duel with the old enemy.
It is that five game battle from July to September that will form the focal point of the summer, and the less-than-impressive recent performances of those players dressed in those rather natty knitted Three Lions sweaters have left many wondering whether the Ashes urn is set to head Down Under once again.
There’s no doubt that England are a stronger eleven with KP in the side, but a lesser ‘team’ with his presence: and that could well be the key to a gruelling schedule of five test matches in eight weeks.
And if the improvements shown during the first test against New Zealand are anything to go by, the Three Lions may well have found an adequate replacement.
So can England regain the Ashes? Or are we set for another metaphorical and meteorological washout?
The Sun Doesn’t Always Shine in the Caribbean
The England team and management headed out to the Caribbean at the start of the year on something of a fact-finding mission.
Was Jonathan Trott ready for integration back into the test side?
The answer was a defiant no; not helped by asking him to open the batting – a role he has barely fulfilled at county level, let alone on the toughest stages in cricket. For a player who has struggled with the psychological demands of touring life, surely a less-pressurised berth in the middle order would have sufficed.
Is Adam Lyth up to the rigours of test cricket?
The Yorkshireman, who has scored nearly 7,000 runs in first-class cricket at an average of 43, was never given a chance to impress – largely due to the Trott situation.
It begs the question: what was the point in taking Lyth to the Caribbean if there was no intention to play him?
He now finds himself making his test debut against New Zealand, and battling the world-class pair of Trent Boult and Tim Southee in helpful English conditions, rather than the more sedate attack of Kemar Roach, Jerome Taylor et al on flat West Indian tracks.
Again, this exhibited more poor planning from all involved.
Have we got a wicket-taking third seamer?
The evidence from the Caribbean was no, not really. Chris Jordan once again failed to live up to the fearsome reputation he has created in domestic cricket, and Ben Stokes is seen more as a batsman who can bowl than vice versa. Having said that, the devastation he sowed at times at Lords against the Kiwis was reminiscent of a young Mr A. Flintoff.
The English faithful were denied the chance to assess the talents of Liam Plunkett – who looked so impressive last summer until injury cut short his international season, and debutant tourist Mark Wood, who were both reduced to the role of water carriers.
Was there any need for Jimmy Anderson and/or Stuart Broad to head to the Caribbean? What they offer the side is obvious, and they surely would have been better off playing a bit of domestic cricket and building up their confidence just in time for a hectic season.
As usual, an England fact-finding mission affirmed what existing players couldn’t do, rather than what new faces could do.
Back on home soil, the first couple of tests of the summer tend to be a great opportunity for the Three Lions to get used to playing long-form cricket under England’s slate grey skies. As we know, the English summer offers something for everyone: a swinging ball for the bowlers, but flat decks on which batsman can prosper when their eyes are in.
New Zealand are the first tourists of the 2015 campaign, and there have been plenty of encouraging signs so far for England.
Alastair Cook, despite continuing doubts over the creativity of his captaincy, batted with real authority in the first test’s second innings, and looked somewhere back to his watchful but fluent self.
In Joe Root, England have a young batsman who could walk into any other side in the world. A test average of 55, after 45 innings and more than 2000 runs, is a staggering achievement. An entertaining middle-order run getter? That should offer hope to even the staunchest of KP supporters.
Stuart Broad bowled with the perfect marriage of venom and skill in the fourth innings of that match, and propelled his team towards an unlikely victory. He was ably supported by Mark Wood, making his first appearance in the England whites.
Despite a curious bowing action in which he looks like he’s being fired out of a cannon, Wood generates genuine pace – up around the 94mph mark at times – and is capable of swinging the ball in either direction. Perhaps England finally has an heir to the James Anderson throne.
And Ben Stokes, who has had an inconsistent introduction to international cricket thus far, came of age with a brutal century – the fastest in test history at Lords. And his ability to take crucial wickets – as he did when removing Kane Williamson and Brendon McCullum – is a particularly happy knack. Having enjoyed such a good Ashes series back in 2013/14, England will hope he can back that with some strong showings on home soil too.
So can England regain the Ashes?
The green shoots of recovery witnessed in the five days of the first test against New Zealand have whet the appetite of the England faithful, who have been through so much in all formats of cricket in recent months.
Suddenly England’s tails are up, they are playing with aggression and bravado, and all facets of their game are firing.
What a difference a few months can make.
New Zealand are a fine side, led by the dynamic McCullum, the new swing king Boult and the prolific Williamson. But their specialism perhaps lies in the one-day game, and Australia’s test team will be far tougher adversaries.
And there are still question marks over England too, of course. Stuart Broad is still a patchily good bowler, rather than a consistently good one. There’s no spin bowler who looks capable of ripping out a middle order or even sneaking a wicket when times are hard. Cook’s ideal opening partner remains a mystery, Ian Bell’s lack of form a worry.
And then there’s the question of how to bat against Mitchell Johnson. They had no answer to the moustached marvel just over a year ago.
But England look as strong and as vibrant as they have done in a long while. And, in life, timing is everything.