In the whooping aftermath of Adelaide, it’s worth turning the clock back a bit. A year ago, England were in South Africa, almost snatching a win while scraping a draw in a series in which they were second best for three Tests out of four.
Yet it was a result that has played a large part in the makeup of the England team that has so impressed in Australia. Steven Finn for the injured Graham Onions is the only change, yet England now look unrecognisable from that team that struggled to score runs and take 20 wickets.
So what has changed? Why should we believe that England have improved from a year ago? Certainly Australia were as poor in Adelaide as any Englishman could have imagined. Yet England were as clinical as they have ever been, and that is the point of difference.
This Flower/ Strauss regime is built on their strong partnership. They have taken a team that, if not young, was naïve in terms of international experience and quality, and through Flower’s micro-management and attention to detail and Strauss’s phlegmatism turned it into a hardened unit. The batsmen are making double centuries. The bowlers are more economical and more effective. The fielders are holding crucial catches and throwing stumps down.
Talented players are genuinely improving. Alastair Cook, Ian Bell, James Anderson and Stuart Broad all much closer to fulfilling their potential than 12-months ago. Even Kevin Pietersen – never a Flower favourite after the Peter Moores affair – looks to be back in the team’s bosom as well as the runs, even if he won’t be back in a Lamborghini for a while. None of this is a coincidence.
Strauss made a telling remark in the post-Adelaide presser. This side, he said, needed to ‘get used to winning’. But to get here, England first needed to get used to not losing. First they did this against West Indies and Australia in 2009. West Indies were a poor side, the Ashes win not entirely convincing, but it didn’t matter. Wins they were. Then came South Africa, Bangladesh, Bangladesh again and Pakistan. A draw and three victories. The context doesn’t matter – they were results that enabled the Flower/ Strauss wheel to keep turning, that kept the players believing what they were being told.
All those series have been littered with little moments where the players learnt something about themselves, that they could do it when it mattered. Anderson and Panesar at Cardiff. Bell at The Oval and in South Africa. Cook at The Oval this time around. Onions’ South African rearguards, and so many more. All adding up to what we see know – a team with a store of collective belief. A team that didn’t lose faith after three horrible days in Brisbane.
England have a swagger now. A swagger they’ve earned with hard work and exacting standards, a swagger that seemed a long way off a year ago. It’s just a shame that this Australian team don’t appear to be able to live with it. This England in South Africa now? Now that would be a proper contest.