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  • England v India, 3rd Test

England find their upward curve

George Dobell | ESPNcricinfo
August 1, 2014
Blue skies above: Alastair Cook savours a first Test victory in 11 attempts © Getty Images
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At long last, after many storms, many rainy days and many sad departures, the sun emerges from the clouds. Victory over India at the Ageas Bowl was not only England's first Test victory for almost a year, but their best performance in far longer. Arguably, not since the Mumbai Test of 2012 have they put such an impressive display together.

There will, doubtless, be more dark days as the team develops. There will be more days when the young players make errors and the senior players fail. Progress will not be smooth.

But, for the first time, there was evidence that this new-look England team could work. There was evidence that the energy and skill of the new players could reinvigorate those who have been battered and bruised by previous campaigns. There was evidence that the senior players - the likes of James Anderson - still have the ability to perform at this level. And there was evidence that Peter Moores, the coach, is the man to oversee the journey.

It was Moores who persuaded the senior players to put the scars of Australia behind them and rediscover the simple joys of playing cricket and representing their county. And it was Moores who has helped create an environment into which new players - the likes of Moeen Ali and Gary Ballance - can enter and quickly feel comfortable and accepted.

It would be foolish to read too much into one performance. England enjoyed a large slice of fortune in this game and they have only levelled the series. But they needed this win. They needed it for their own self-confidence as players, to shore up faith in the 'new era' and to draw a line under the past. While it would be wrong to forget about Mitchell Johnson et al - we will be in the middle of an Ashes series this time next year - England can, for now, focus on the rebuilding operation rather than dwelling on what has been lost.

Here we assess the state of the side.

The positives

The manner in which Gary Ballance has taken to Test cricket - and to the No. 3 spot - has been hugely encouraging. While his solidity early in his innings is reassuring, he also has the ability to change gear when required. He may face tougher challenges on turning wickets or against greater pace, but he could hardly have contributed more at this stage. He scored almost 200 runs in this Test despite being incorrectly given out in both innings.

The return to form of the senior players - Ian Bell, Alastair Cook, Stuart Broad and James Anderson - was perhaps the most significant improvement for England. Bell and Cook both scored more than 150 runs in the game, while Anderson enjoyed his first five-wicket haul in more than a year and Broad lent excellent support.

It might seem churlish to point it out, but England did enjoy some luck in this match. It is impossible to say how things might have progressed had fate taken a different turn

Cook had a fine match as captain. So well did England bat in their first innings, it may be forgotten that many were suggesting this was a bowl-first pitch, so Cook deserves credit for his choice. He was also rewarded for his faith in Moeen, as well as some of his field placings - a catch was taken at gully the delivery after he placed the man there on the final day - while so well did his manage the acceleration and the declaration in the second innings, that he was able to rest his bowlers a little and still secure victory with two sessions to spare.

Chris Woakes bowled with skill, consistency and no little pace at the Ageas Bowl. The scorecard might not have shown it, but if he continues to bowl so well, it surely will.

We are only five Tests into Moeen Ali's Test career, but he has already produced outstanding performances with bat (against Sri Lanka in Leeds) and ball (in Southampton). Cook remarked he had never known a bowler improve so quickly and there should be plenty more to come. It will amuse Moeen to know his figures in the second innings, 6 for 67, were better than any recorded by Shane Warne against India.

Jos Buttler enjoyed a fine debut. Not only did he thrash a selfless 85 - some players would have played for a century on Test debut in such circumstances - but he claimed six catches in the match and looked increasingly comfortable with the gloves.

Joe Root is in the middle of a wonderful summer. While he failed in the first innings here, his second innings half-century (from 38 balls) helped England set-up the declaration and underlined what a fine, adaptable player he has become.

After two losses and two draws from his first four Tests as coach, this was an important milestone for Peter Moores. Not only were the selections of most of the younger players vindicated, but Broad credited the coach for a change of mindset that helped those players beaten in Australia leave the past behind and rediscover the vibrant, positive style of play that rendered them such a fine side in 2011. For creating an environment where young players can flourish and older players can renew themselves, Moores deserves credit.

The decision to drop - or rest - Liam Plunkett and Ben Stokes was not due to any dissatisfaction with their bowling. Both will, no doubt, return before too long, underlining the impression that, alongside the current team, Steven Finn and a few others, England are starting to build a decent stable of seamers. Bearing in mind the international schedule in 2015, that may prove essential.

There is impressive batting depth to this England side. With the potential to have Broad, the maker of a Test century, at No. 10, England should prove increasingly hard for opposition sides to finish off and have the potential to accelerate as innings progress.

James Anderson poses for a photo after England's emphatic win. Could it be his last act of the series? © PA Photos
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Not only was Cook given a rousing ovation when he walked out to bat - he said he had never experienced anything like it and would never forget it - but a crowd of around 9,000 battled against awful traffic and long queues to see the moment of victory. It was a sign that, with just a little encouragement, the English cricket-loving public can be won back. They just need not to be fleeced or patronised by the authorities and something of which to be proud and supportive.

The concerns

It might seem churlish to point it out, but England did enjoy some luck in this match. Cook, Bell and Buttler all enjoyed reprieves - either from the umpires or the fielders - early in their innings. It is impossible to say how the match might have progressed had fate taken a different turn.

Both Bell and Cook have struggled for runs for much of the past year. While their return to form was pleasing for England, they will need to contribute more consistently if the side is to sustain an improvement in results. The concerns about Cook's batting, in particular, have not gone away.

At the start of the summer, Chris Jordan bowled with pace, skill and control. Perhaps as a result of being dropped after two Tests, he currently looks a nervous cricketer and struggled for both pace and control here. Neither he or Woakes claimed a wicket in the match, suggesting England still remain uncomfortably reliant on their two frontline seamers. That increases anxiety at the thought this may have been Anderson's final contribution of the series. Having just reasserted his worth to the side, he now faces a disciplinary hearing which could result in a four-Test ban. In such form, he is very hard to replace.

It is only three Tests since Sam Robson scored his maiden Test century, but his frailty outside the off stump is becoming a concern. It is an area on which he will need to improve if he is to survive at this level.

The conclusion

These are early days in the rebuilding of the England side. Inexperienced players are sure to make mistakes and there may be days when Buttler struggles with the gloves, Moeen struggles with the ball and Root and Woakes are unable to replicate the deeds of those that preceded them.

There will be days, too, when Cook cannot find all the answers as captain. He will never be a beautiful batsman; he will never be a great orator. But he can be calm and sensible and lead by example. If he can maintain his improved form with the bat, there is no reason he cannot continue to lead as well as he did in India in 2012.

There is a long way to go and England remain, at present, a mid-ranking Test side with plenty of room for progress. But for the first occasion in a long, long time, they can be said to be heading in the right direction.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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