England wrapped up the 4th and final Test against the West Indies yesterday afternoon with a 7-wicket victory. The record books will reflect a 3-0 series win - but I found it hard to get excited about an England team who repeatedly made hard work of besting a team which, with the honourable exception of new captain Shivnarine Chanderpaul, lacks players of the highest class.
3-0 suggests a near-total dominance on England's part, but the reality was anything but. Sure, there were some fantastic individual performances - Monty Panesar's 10-wicket match performance at Old Trafford (and 23 overall), Alastair Cook's two centuries, Kevin Pietersen's powerful double hundred at Headingley - and there were genuine purple patches of play by the team as a whole. But for every great session where England put their foot firmly on the Windies' jugular, there was another where they let a distinctly average opponent get back onto their feet.
Let's look at the evidence.
1st Test (match drawn): England open up the series with a pile-driving 553 for 5 declared. But, having taken the first five West Indies wickets for 187, they allowed the last five to add a further 250, crucially eating into both England's lead and their time - the latter being crucial on a final day on which rain and bad light allowed only 20 overs to be bowled.
2nd Test (England won by an innings and 283 runs): A crushing victory; England's one truly overwhelming performance of the series, with Pietersen's double hundred fuelling another 500-plus declaration, with the Windies being skittled out for less than 150 in both innings. This was the one match where it all came together consistently for England and demonstrated just how good this team can be, but it's also frustrating to see how far short of this potential the team fell during the rest of the series.
3rd Test (England won by 60 runs): England at their most frustrating, in full 'rollercoaster' mode. Several times in this match they built strong positions, only to concede ground almost immediately. First up, they converted a precarious 166 for 5 into a decent first-innings total of 370. Then they skittled out the Windies' tail - the last six wickets for just 13 runs - to build a handy 141-run lead which served as a springboard to setting up a target of 455 runs. To then watch as England's bowlers laboured to deliver the seemingly inevitable was painful in the extreme. At one stage, with the West Indies still with five wickets intact and closing to within 150 runs of what had initially seemed a purely academic target, it even looked like England might just conspire to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. But, thankfully - belatedly - they arose from their slumber, and Panesar, aided and abetted by Steve Harmison, returned to finish the job and complete a 60-run victory which was far more nail-biting than it should ever have been.
4th Test (England won by 7 wickets): This was better by England, and ultimately this was a comfortable victory, but it was not without its alarms. England scored a round 400 in response to the West Indies' 287, but it was built on a 169-run, seventh-wicket stand between Paul Collingwood and wicketkeeper Matt Prior which compensated for failures higher up the order. At the point at which the pair first came together, England had limped to 165 for 6 - what eventually became a 100-plus lead could easily have been a similar-sized deficit. And this time, the bowlers were efficient enough in bowling out a by now dispirited Windies side, with only the partnership of Chanderpaul (who else?) and Dwayne Bravo showing any significant resistance.
So, I guess the end analysis is this. Three wins - one supremely dominant, one ultimately comfortable after a faltering start, and one which should have been routine but wasn't - against a distinctly average and rebuilding side. Sure, we can point at Flintoff's injury and some fine individual performances. And definitely, England did generally show the killer instinct when it really mattered. But I can't help but feel there is a lack of cohesion in this team - is the team less than the sum of its parts? - and for all the talk about the great spirit in the side, it is clear we are still a long way from repeating that glorious Ashes summer of 2005. And yet we have seen all too brief glimpses of it over the past few weeks of this series - the ability and the potential are there, if we can just tap into it often enough and eradicate the "one good session, one bad session" inconsistency that seems to be part of this team's psyche.
This side genuinely could be world-beaters (at least in the Test match format), but they don't do it consistently enough. And it's that which annoys me more than if this was just a middling side struggling to get by. For me, unfulfilled potential is more of a crime than no potential at all.
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