Are England ready to push on and become the No 1 Test side in the world?

The strangest of Test summers has come to an end and England can be happy with their work.

Two series, two wins. Job done. Well, as much as it can be. There is always another match, another series, another opponent to overcome. Even while Joe Root and his side might not know when and where that may be, the only certainty is that it will come.

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Besides, as far as the captain is concerned, this team isn’t anywhere close to done. Taking this side to the top of the world rankings is the aim, Root has made no secret of that. England are currently fourth in the ICC rankings and third in the World Test Championship table.

To reach No 1, winning at home is a must and, for all their faults over the past few years, England have done that. In fact, victory over Pakistan means that since the start of 2015, New Zealand are the only visiting team to have avoided defeat in a Test series in England and you have to go back to Sri Lanka in 2014 for the last time a touring side won here.

Some Test series are more equal than others though and how the wins over West Indies and Pakistan are viewed really depends on the perspective you choose to take.

On the one hand, this was a West Indies side whose win over England in the Caribbean last year was their only success against a major Test-playing nation since 2012, while Bazid Khan compared the rebuilding of the Pakistan team to English roadworks on the Cricket Debate – never-ending.

Stronger than the Windies perhaps, but Pakistan are still very much a team under construction.

Alternatively, Jason Holder and his four-pronged pace attack had thumped England less than 18 months previously and took a 1-0 lead in the series. As for Pakistan, they have also been something of a bogey side for England and given the quality and variety of the tourists’ bowling attack, ending that run was no formality.

Whichever view you take, England did come out on top in both series – winning a series against Pakistan for the first time since 2010 – and with the schedule having been ripped up due to COVID, they currently have little idea when or where their next Test match might be.

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For now, perhaps the best thing they can do is take stock. Much like English roadworks and the Pakistan team’s transition period, under what would previously have been described as ‘normal circumstances’, the merry-go-round of international cricket never stops.

After juddering to a halt in March, the generosity of the West Indies, Pakistan and Australia helped the ECB to give it a push start this summer, but nobody knows how long it will be before it is back to full speed. Time then to make the best of the situation, and consider where the current side need to improve if they are to fulfil their captain’s ambition and become the best in the world.

Top order troubles over?

You have to go back a long time for the first item on England’s agenda not to be finding a solution at the top of the order. In the time it took England to find an opening batsman they could rely on, both the man they were hoping to replace and the man they hoped could form a partnership with this seemingly mythical player have been knighted.

Finally, though, the issue seems to be in hand. Rory Burns had a torrid time against Pakistan – with a top-score of 10 across four innings – but he made scores of 57 and 90 in the third West Indies Test and while far from a stellar summer for the left-hander, it hasn’t been the unmitigated disaster some would have you believe.

Alongside him, Dom Sibley continues to impress and while he shed the pounds during lockdown, his appetite for runs is still there for all to see. England won’t be concerned with how long he takes to get them, so long as the runs keep coming.

However, with trips to India – or the UAE – and Sri Lanka likely to be among England’s tours in the New Year, Sibley will need to find a strategy to prevent him getting bogged down against spin but 12 games into his Test career, it looks as though he is here to stay – and he is not the only one.

Zak Crawley is England’s No 3 and should stay there for a long time. His 267 against Pakistan at the Ageas Bowl could prove to be the defining innings of his career. Already there have been calls for him to be moved up to replace Burns but after playing such a magnificent innings at first drop, why on earth would you move him?

At 22, he has already been shunted around the order and, just a couple of matches before his double ton, was the man left out as England tried to shoehorn another seamer into the XI. He has ensured that won’t be the case next time and has undoubtedly earned the right of a run of games in what is a crucial position.

“It’s a pleasure to watch him from the other end,” Jos Buttler said of Crawley. “He hits the ball incredibly hard, has shots all around the wicket and he’s a great kid to bat with. It’s the start of a very special career.

“He’s going to score a few more hundreds for England, no doubt.”

The tempo of Crawley’s batting is another huge plus. That array of shots Buttler mentions means he can score his runs quickly and help keep the scoreboard ticking in a way England struggled to do with a top three of Burns, Sibley and Joe Denly focusing on seeing off the new ball and batting 100 balls.

It is early days but Crawley looks able to provide both the stability of Burns and Sibley, as well as the ability to push things on when required. Not to mention, it allows the captain to stay in his favoured No 4 spot!

Despite neither Root or Ollie Pope scoring as many runs as they would have liked this summer, England will be more than satisfied with their middle-order going forward.

Even with just one fifty – 68no against the Windies – and a first series without a half-century since 2013 against Pakistan, Root managed to look in good touch pretty much every time he batted. As ever though, certainly since he took over as captain, there is a feeling of wanting more from him – that is even more valid now than when he was decried for getting dismissed in the 70s and 80s.

Three years into his captaincy, the Yorkshireman seems far more relaxed in the role though and England will hope that leads to a return to his best form with the bat.

As for Pope, despite glimpses of his undisputed quality, the last six Tests proved that he is still a long way from the finished article. However, if that means he is allowed to stay at five or six and develop, rather that be pushed up the order too soon, then it could well be the best thing for both him and England.

As for Ben Stokes, what more can you say? He is a superstar. With bat and ball. Arguably England’s biggest problem over the past couple of months has been trying to find a way to balance the side in his absence – or when he was not fit to bowl. If England do make it to world No 1 in the next few years, you can guarantee Stokes will have played a significant role.

Strong behind the stumps

Wicketkeeping strength is certainly not a problem for England. Jos Buttler started the season fighting for his place in the side and ended it as England’s player of the series against Pakistan. His brilliant 75 in England’s thrilling chase in Manchester could be the making of him as a Test player.

The 152 he made at the Ageas Bowl might best be described as understated, not often a word used to describe Buttler’s batting, but the way he played second fiddle to Crawley for much of their record-breaking stand perhaps showed his growth as a red-ball batsman.

Buttler’s place in the side is certainly secure but after a sketchy series with the gloves, particularly standing up to Dom Bess in the first Pakistan Test, Ben Foakes and Jonny Bairstow will know tours to the subcontinent may provide them with the opportunity to reclaim the gloves.

Who Buttler is standing up to in the first Test of whichever series comes next is perhaps the biggest question for England. Bess was the only bowler to play all six Tests across the summer having leapfrogged Jack Leach as No 1 spinner during the tour of South Africa.

The selectors, coach and captain have put plenty of faith in him but, even in largely seamer-friendly conditions, eight wickets at 55 is not the kind of return that demands a place in the XI at the start of the next series.

“To be the best side in the world, you need a top-quality spinner, there is no doubt about it,” Matt Prior, who kept wicket to England’s best spinner of recent times, Graeme Swann, told the Cricket Debate.

“[Bess] needs to perform two roles. In the first innings, it might be to hold up an end to give one of your quick bowlers a rest, without giving away control.

“Then at the back end of a match, third or fourth innings, it is to take your five, six or seven wickets and win the game for your team. The thing I would say about spin bowling is that spinners get better with age.”

Bess does still have time on his side but given that Leach essentially lost his place due to illness rather than a loss of form with the ball and that there is a feeling Bess’s ability with the bat is not an insignificant factor in him being preferred to his Somerset team-mate, a change to the balance of the side could inspire such a switch.

Of course, in the subcontinent, there is every chance both could play and the last time England were in Sri Lanka, Leach formed part of a successful spin trio with Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid. Before England can make any decisions on their spin options going forward, they will need to establish if either Ali or Rashid want to return to Test cricket.

Matt Parkinson and Amar Virdi are the other options but would likely find themselves behind Rashid and Ali, respectively, if that duo do make themselves available for selection. If there is one big thing missing from this England side, it might just be a top-quality spinner.

Can England be ‘absolutely ruthless’?

Which brings us to the area in which England have the most quality: their seam attack. Jimmy Anderson overcame a slow start to the summer to take his 600th Test wicket and, even at 38, shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.

Stuart Broad used all his anger at being left out of the opening Test of the summer to produce one of his best ever home seasons, taking 29 wickets at 13.41, and go past 500 Test wickets in the process. Then you have Chris Woakes, whose record in England is as good as anyone.

Three bowlers who are experts at exploiting English conditions. You can throw Sam Curran into that mix as well, plus Stokes for whom the conditions hardly seem to matter anymore, while Sussex’s Ollie Robinson remains uncapped but is pushing hard for a chance.

Finding bowlers to win them games in England has not been a problem for the selectors, it is when the ball isn’t swinging or seaming away from home that has proven an issue – and where the England Test side is concerned, thoughts of the Ashes are never far away.

“The pace of this attack and the age of this attack is not going to win you a game with a Kookaburra ball in Australia,” Nasser Hussain said.

“So it is that fine balancing act between introducing pace before you get to Australia so they’re ready for that tour, or any other tour away from home where you’ll need extra pace.”

This is where Jofra Archer and Mark Wood come in. However, Wood only played one Test this summer, taking two wickets at 55, and despite playing four of the six Tests, Archer rarely looked at his best as a return of eight wickets at 45 suggests.

“Wood and Archer were brilliant in South Africa,” Hussain added. “Archer last time he played in Centurion got five wickets before his injury and Wood was outstanding in the last two Test matches.

“Then they came back here and rewarded Wood and Archer and left Broad out, in England under lights against the West Indies. So if you’re going to be horses for courses, then your chief selector, your captain and your coach have to be absolutely ruthless and not reward people for doing well on the other course, if you know what I mean.”

It remains to be seen whether England do show that kind of ruthless attitude and even if they do, what does that mean for Archer?

Whereas the evidence is stacking up that Wood is more effective away from home, Archer’s best figures in Test cricket came at Headingley last year. With the ball nipping around, Archer bowled at 85-86mph and came away with 6-45.

He might be able to crank it up to 96mph and bounce batsmen for fun but that is not always the best way to use him.

“Just because you can bowl at 90mph-plus doesn’t mean you have to bowl two yards shorter than everyone else,” Darren Gough told the Cricket Debate.

“The batsmen, in the back of their mind will be thinking ‘that ball is coming down at me at 90mph’, whether it is pitched up or short. Put the ball in the right areas at whatever speed you bowl and you’re going to create problems for the batsmen.

“I just think he has been caught in two minds in his head, people want him to bowl quickly and by doing that he has ended up bowling too short on the slower pitches we’ve played on.”

The good news for England is that, on paper at least, the battery of seamers they have at their disposal should allow them to compete around the world, certainly far more than in years gone by. The tricky part is getting the combinations right.

Ready to push for No 1?

There is undoubtedly a huge amount of potential in this current England team. The young batsmen who came in over the winter all have the capacity to become established top-class Test players, a genuine superstar all-rounder in Stokes and an array of seamers up there with any in the world – and there are some brilliant pace attacks around at the moment.

However, with some very tough away series to come in the next couple of years, an inexperienced batting line-up could really do with Root rediscovering top form and Stokes maintaining his. As for the bowlers, the spin department is clearly most in need of attention while the skipper and the coaching staff may have to make themselves unpopular with the seamers at times to give themselves the best chance of success.

There are also question marks over whether Anderson and Broad will be around long enough to see this particular job through and it is quite the understatement to say that replacing either or both of them will not be easy, even with a surplus of quality English pace bowlers around at the moment.

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