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By Matthew Handley
The one positive cricket fans can take from the first few weeks of ‘summer’ is that the rain which has washed out the first four weeks of cricket in Oxford hasn’t had the same effect on Lord’s.
After a testing winter in which England were whitewashed by Pakistan and had to dig deep to draw the series in Sri Lanka, then face the West Indies followed by an intriguing matchup between the top two Test sides in the world when South Africa arrive for three Tests in mid-July.
For England, the lesson of the winter was that victory would prove very difficult if the top six continued to misfire. Against Pakistan, no batsman reached 100, and there were only five half-centuries over the three tests. Things reached their lowest point in the second Test when, chasing a very attainable 144, England collapsed to 72 all out with only Strauss and Prior reaching double figures.
Against Sri Lanka last month though, there were signs of improvement as the top four produced big runs in the second Test, while Graeme Swann
bagged a ten wicket haul. This meant that England could look ahead to the summer with a reasonable degree of confidence, boasting three of the world’s top ten ranked bowlers in Jimmy Anderson, Swann and Stuart Broad, and with a batting line-up that looks fearsome if they can bat their way into form.
First up this summer are the visiting West Indians, who, although ranked just seventh in the world, have players who can cause Engla
nd a few problems, with Shivnarine Chanderpaul, the top ranked batsman in the world, the most prominent amongst them. Unfortunately for West Indies fans, and thos
e with a taste for close, competitive cricket, the visitors are without several key players. Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo, Andre Russell and Kieron Pollard, are playing in the IPL, and Ramnaresh Sarwan has made the controversial decision to play for Leicestershire instead. The missing stars mean that the West Indian squad looks slightly thin, and the lack of world-class bowling means that England should be heavy favourites.
Those first three Tests should serve to whet the appetite for the main event of the summer, a showdown with South Africa, considered by the ICC rankings to be exactly as good as England. Like England, South Africa have a blistering bowling attack, led by Dale Steyn, the best Test bowler in the wor
ld. Like England, they have a fearsome upper-order capable of taking any attack in the world to pieces on their day. Last time the two sides met, the South African batsmen cashed in and enjoyed a very productive summer, highlighted by captain Graeme Smith’s two big hundreds in the series. Although this was four years ago, the stability of the upper order, comprising Smith, the classy pairing of De Villiers and Amla, and the evergreen Jacques Kallis, means that we can expect the Proteas to test England’s potent attack to the maximum.
The West Indies series should give England’s batsmen, particularly Andrew Strauss, the chance to regain some form before the South Africans arrive. The Proteas should give a full-strength, hopefully in-form, England the toughest test they’ve faced since the 2009 Ashes. That alone should have cricket fans salivating over the prospect. Now if only it would stop raining…