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An English summer...well begun!
by Chetan Narula
May 11, 2009
Consider this: the first day of the English summer, one that also encompasses an Ashes series, England ended up at 289 for 7. Not the best of starts considering that they are playing the West Indies, but then that was the very factor that saved them in the end. For the Windies haven't really taken to the notion that catches win matches and dropped as many as six through the first day of play.

That was the difference between an English score of 220 all out and the one they ultimately achieved. It could have gone very awry for the hosts, if the catches had been held, in the back-drop of the off-field commotions that have been keeping them busy. The better of these have been finding a permanent coach, trying to get players back from the IPL fit and raring to go, and solve teething problems with both bat and ball.

They made Andy Flower the director of the national cricketing team, for the lesser aware a person that's a new term coined for head coach. Then they got three out of their four main players participating in the IPL back, and will be happy that the one missing out due to injury, Andrew Flintoff, had his one breakdown for the summer before the Aussies come calling. On top of it, they won the first test inside three days which means that some of their problems on the field have been solved as well.

The star of the game without a shadow of a doubt was Graeme Swann. Come to think of it, he has been the star for them since their tour to India. He was clearly the better spinner on his first tour here, outshining Monty Panesar by a mile. Then in the West Indies, as the English attack lacked the teeth to get the better of the hosts' batting grit, he was always amongst the wickets, trying to throw a spanner in the works and just missing out because he lacked decent support.

It has taken him a while to get elevated to the number one spinner in the squad, primarily because the team management delayed identifying the problems Panesar was facing. Even on the Windies tour, Swann wasn't the first choice spinner and came into the side only when the Sardar failed to recreate his magic. At the time of writing, on the footsteps of Swann's match-winning performance, Panesar has been excluded from the squad for the second test match, giving him the opportunity to probably iron out the kinks in his bowling ahead of the Kangaroos' visit.

In that particular light, Swann gains all the more importance in the side. Not because, along with turning his arm over, he can also bat and contribute from the lower order, but primarily because of his ability to extract sharp turn and bounce from a second and third day pitch, particularly after being handed the new ball. The Ashes will take part in the second half of the English summer, whence the county season would be at its fag end, the T20 world cup would have been played as also all the ODI series will be done away with. On similar pitches, Ashley Giles played an important part in 2005 and thus the rise of Swann couldn't have been timed better.

For it is a matter of conjecture if Panesar can regain his touch before the first Ashes test, or that another promising spinner will rise from the county wilderness. In the interim period, England will do well to hone and nurture the weapon that Graeme Swann could prove to be for them later this summer. Remember, he is an off-spinner who will be bowling to an Australian line-up dominated by left-handed batsmen.

England's bane on the tours to India and West Indies were the flat tracks prepared and that their bowlers are primarily programmed to take wickets in conditions that guarantee enough movement off the seam. Ryan Sidebottom has suffered immensely ever since his team set off the British Isles and the plain reason is that the cherry has refused to swing for him. Back home now, he won't have much trouble tiding over his form, if somehow he can keep his fitness going.

And that is why England won't suffer from a lack of fast bowling options this summer. Never mind that Simon Jones is out of picture, a fit Andrew Flintoff should take care of the reverse swing along with James Anderson, while Tim Bresnan and Graham Onions should use the English weather to generate enough movement with the new ball. While Bresnan has time to show what he is capable of, Onions had a dream debut at Lord's and can continue in the same vein as long as he is playing in England. Yes, without a shadow of a doubt, he is just another bowler in the Sidebottom mould!

The batting does seem to be in a spot of bother though and the first day total didn't really do anything to belie that fact. Ravi Bopara at number three isn't the safest of bets, especially against the Aussies, but that gamble has paid off for the moment and given time, might even turn out to be an inspirational move. The big worry is that Paul Collingwood, Owais Shah and Kevin Pietersen didn't do much in the IPL and missed county games as well. So the longer they take to get back in their groove, the tougher it is going to get on the batsmen who are getting runs.

The West Indies didn't look the part at all in the first test and that is what you get when the team has been preparing without their captain, who in turn was busy earning a quick buck in the IPL. England made mistakes in that game but they went unpunished, which might not be the case against Australia. All in all, the result should boost them ahead of a long international summer.

As they say, a job well begun is half done. But then again, that doesn't necessarily hold true in cricket!

(The columnist is a sports writer and Mobile ESPN cricket commentator based in New Delhi, India.)
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