The big stage has not traditionally been trod with much comfort by English sportsmen. Habitual under-performance in pressure situations has imbued certain events (like penalties against the Germans) with a gut-wrenching inevitability, the all too certain knowledge that sooner or later someone will choke. Until recently limited overs cricket was an exemplary arena in which to prove this phenomenon. England played the shorter forms hamstrung by fear, and the opposition knew that they were only ever two or three dot balls away from a wild swipe or an incompetent attempt at a nurdle. The most famous example is of course Mike Gatting’s reverse sweep in the World Cup Final, but the history of English cricket is littered with such clumsy naivety and even the coming of T20 seemed to have brought no improvement, despite England’s invention of the format.
Now, however, the whole picture has changed. England, under the dour but reassuring guidance of Andy Flower, have developed a squad and a method which excels precisely when they were formerly weakest; when the pressure is on. The recent World T20 victory is a testament to this. Every time England seemed in danger of conceding ground somebody stepped up with a vital wicket or some useful runs, and their performances improved with the size of the occasion, resulting in an absolute hammering of Australia in the final. The two recent ODIs against Australia, too, have seen an England side which can turn on the gas whenever it is required. In the first game, when England had subsided to 90 odd for 4, Eoin Morgan and (the unlikeliest of consolidators) Luke Wright combined to produce a steadying partnership which nonetheless came at a healthy strike rate. In the second, when Shane Watson threatened to take the game away from England, the newly beefed-up Stuart Broad produced a match altering spell of 4 for 44, an analysis which reined in the Australians and meant that the batsmen merely had to accumulate sensibly for the team to stroll to a comfortable victory. Where can this steely aplomb can have come from, and how has Andy Flower managed to produce it in just over a year, after the horrendous, embarrassing debacle in the West Indies.
The signs were there in last year’s Ashes. Though England were consistently the poorer side throughout the series, they played the crucial sessions much better than the Australians. The final day at Cardiff, the first session at Lords, James Anderson’s spell at Edgbaston and Stuart Broad’s at Headingley; all these moments spoke of a squad with a greater than usual inner resolution, an internal strength which could be drawn on when they really needed it. Abject performances at Cardiff and Headingley did not bother them, did not shake their fundamental self-belief. This says much about the characters of the players themselves, but it says more about the role of the coach and captain and their ability to turn negatives into positives, triumph into disaster. Flower and Strauss had managed to produce an ethos which was tough on ill-discipline and bad performance while nonetheless bolstering the sometimes fragile confidence of a talented group of players. Pietersen, Anderson, Broad and Bell all required subtle and different personal approaches in order to get the best out of them, but it was provided with great skill by the two Andys and their reward was reclaiming the urn.
Personnel, too, has made a difference. Inspired selections like Eoin Morgan, Graeme Swann and Craig Kieswetter have all repaid the faith put in them many times over. Perhaps more valuable, however, have been the more surprising stars, hard-working county players who Flower and Strauss have selected for their mettle as much as their magic. Jonathan Trott, Tim Bresnan, Michael Lumb and Michael Yardy have all shown grit, determination when given their chance, a timely reminder that talent is but one of many virtues which help to win games of cricket.
The future, therefore, looks bright. England have an enviable mix of youth, experience and real class, and a sensible trio at the helm of their three sides. Alastair Cook is learning the captaincy all the time, and with Steven Finn, Stuart Broad, Ajmal Shahzad, Adil Rashid and Tim Bresnan all under the age of 25 they have a superbly talented batch of young bowlers who are equipped to play in all forms of the game. Four of them can also bat, another strength of the Flower selection manual and something which will be vital in Australia this winter. As for that series, it will be an exceptionally difficult test, even for this excellent group. The Aussies are still a high class unit, with several excellent batsmen, one of the best keeping all-rounders in world cricket, and a battery of fast men who are a completely different proposition on home soil. The result, however, will still turn on the crucial matter of who can play the pressure points better, and if England can keep playing as they are at the moment they’ll certainly be in with a fighting chance.