Cow Corner

The reason England are no longer top dogs

Cow Corner

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If you are looking to make sense of England being deposed as Test cricket's best side, there are a few avenues to consider.

The saga of Kevin Pietersen's axing from the team is one particularly unhelpful distraction. Andrew Strauss' negative captaincy is another. Stuart Broad's loss of pace is a third. Burned out cricketers and undercooked ones are other reasons people will cite for England's loss in the series.

But here's the real reason England are officially not the top side in Test cricket any more — because South Africa are a better one.

When your team loses it is natural to see what deficiencies you can identify, what failings sealed your fate. There is plenty for captain Strauss and coach Andy Flower to look at — not just in this series, but in the fall from the giddy heights of 2011.

But even if everything had gone England's way, it would have taken quite something to overcome a side as balanced and versatile as an Olympic gymnast, with the weaponry of a tank.

There was rarely a moment in the series where England dominated South Africa, and a scoreline of 2-0 to the tourists does not flatter them. Had England pulled off the most unlikely of run chases in the final session, it would have been a heist.

Even at the time that England took the Test mace last summer, it always looked as if the true Test of their standing would come against South Africa. If they have designs on reclaiming that status, they will surely not feel it's truly confirmed until they beat South Africa, and the earliest opportunity to do that is in the winter of 2015/6.

By that time, Strauss's tenure will be at an end. Some would happily see him call it a day in the wake of this Test, his 100th.

Strauss has been a fine servant to England's cricket team. He has scored 7000 Test runs, and taken a team from the mess of the Peter Moores/Pietersen bust-up to the top of the Test standings for the first time in their history. And judging by the defiant tone of his post-match press conferences, he is in no mood to step aside.

But three years of averaging 32.79 with the team's results falling away all the while is not a record that should afford you great protection.

Strauss is just one of the problems in England's batting line-up. England's batsmen have developed a self-preserving knack of dropping out of form without anyone performing sufficiently badly to get the chop. Unless you're Pietersen, and you text your way out of the reckoning, the only batting position to have changed hands since 2009 is the man at number six.

Consider the averages of the top five in 2012 against their career averages:

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The numbers are damning — and yet which one of them top five is in serious danger of losing their place?

That is a problem England have faced before and now do again - where to be ruthless and where to be loyal. Team unity and consistency have been vital ingredients of the rise of this side and the 2005 Ashes-winning line-up - but the coach of the 2005 team Duncan Fletcher persisted with failing players too long, and Flower must now work out whether the same is happening here.

The much-vaunted bowling line-up were bested by their equivalents. Broad worked out last year that he was not the enforcer — this year's lesson is that he is not effective at 80mph.

Finn offered considerably more on the strength of two Test outings, and while Broad has shown his class in recent times, he must rediscover his pace. Swann, too, was so off-colour that dropping him became feasible at Headingley.

England's focus has spread — they are actively pursuing success in the one-day arena for the first time perhaps ever — and that has seen rotations to the Test line-up. Whether Flower and Strauss got those calls right will again need consideration.

Enough was said about Kevin Pietersen yesterday — but what is certain is that England will need to take an executive decision on his future — quickly and decisively, because there is work to be done.

England are not a bad team. But if they ever were the best Test side, they are not any more. If they want to reclaim the status, they will need to find a way to come back better still.

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