Cow Corner

What next for the world’s top Test team?

Game over - the long trudge back for Anderson and Bresnan

A year ago England were eviscerating India on home soil to become the world's number one Test side.

The 4-0 series win meant that they themselves were handed the Test mace (that's not figurative, of course — that's literally what was at stake), and it confirmed the remarkable progress the side had made from a willing side into a functional one, into a rather good one.

They were the Ashes holders, home and away. They were the side who had whitewashed the men ranked as their worthiest rivals. This was unprecedented territory.

Taking on — and beating — South Africa, the last remaining side with a credible claim to being the world's best this summer, was supposed to be a coronation. But after defeat by an innings and 12 runs in the opening Test, all England have is a reality check.

And if Andrew Strauss and his players are honest with themselves, they have had too many of those in the last 12 months of Test cricket.

The crushing nature of this defeat makes it feel like a bolt from the blue — but it is no such thing.

Headache for Strauss

When England finished the India series, it brought their Test record for 2011 to played eight, won six, drawn two.

In 2012, the world's best side have won three more, drawn one and lost five.

You don't need the considered analytical skills of team coach Andy Flower to work out that that is not the form of champions. Their Test form has to some extent stagnated.

England lost four straight Tests on the road, facing Pakistan and Sri Lanka on slow and low wickets which left their batsmen like shells of men, prodding around ephemerally until a mysterious spinner ended their misery.

They won the last of those away Tests, a fig leaf over those embarrassments, enough to suggest that maybe they had learned those lessons spoken of in post-match platitudes and might be better prepared for the tour of India later this year.

Besides, it was expected that in home conditions England would rediscover their mojo. And so it seemed, as they won the Tests against the West Indies that the weather did not render unwinnable, before completing a series of impressive limited-overs victories, including four in a row against Australia.

England have won their last 10 one-day internationals in a row, and are the defending T20 world champions. They are as close to being top of the tree in all three formats of the game as they have ever been.

Happier times in the ODI format

Perhaps those limited-overs successes have had a knock-on to the fortunes of the Test side. In  days gone by it would have been unthinkable to rest the likes of James Anderson and Stuart Broad from a Test match to play them in one-dayers, but that is exactly what Flower opted to do. It meant that the strike bowlers came into the game without any four- or five-day cricket since May.

South Africa might be the tourists, but they're the side who've had some warm-up matches.

There's an argument that cricket of any format at the highest level keeps a player in good shape, while the all-year round nature of international cricketer means that there's very few parts of the year when a player isn't ready for action.

Cowers has sympathy for that viewpoint — and for Flower's plan to turn England into a top quality team on all three fronts. England's long-standing tradition of being appalling at one-day cricket owes much to the fact that the format has been treated as an afterthought. The correction in attitude already seems to be paying off — if there are bumps in the road, then Flower has earned more than enough credit for fans not to do anything rash, like opening the car door before performing a tuck and roll.

But the bowlers will attract flak for taking just two wickets as South Africa racked up 637 runs. The speed gun seemed to indicate that Anderson, Broad and Tim Bresnan were all bowling a few miles per hour short of the sort of speeds we've seen from them in the past. It meant the attack, finding little swing, grew somewhat predictable.

But the bigger flaw in this line-up is the batting, which despite having some much-vaunted members, has failed on several occasions in the past few months.

Even in this Test, there is a case for pointing the finger of blame at the batsmen. From 250 for two, as they were late on day one, subsiding to 385 proved fatal. Had they made another 100 runs, as they surely should have done, they would have had enough in reserve to escape with a draw.

They are an interesting bunch, the English top five — all boast a stack of runs at healthy averages, and yet despite five defeats in which the blamed could be laid at their feet, there is no man remotely close to the axe.

England are not the kind of team who ring the changes these days when things go wrong. The tried-and-tested formula of six batsmen, four bowlers will not be altered — so beyond Steven Finn perhaps getting the nod ahead of Tim Bresnan, it would be hard to imagine a much-changed England taking to the field for the next Test at Headingley.

But when they do so, they will know that a further defeat will mean their claim to the title of world's best Test side will look paper-thin.

There's plenty at stake, and plenty to prove. England's rise to the top has been thrilling, but the next two matches are crucial to the legacy of these players.

If they don't turn things around, England face the prospect of handing over the Test best mace to South Africa by August 20 at Lord's, the home of cricket, a year to the week after they won it.

Happier mace-based times in the Test format