STATE OF THE NATION: Cook has credentials to take England forward

WHO would be a sports pundit?

After England lost the first Test against India last month, many predicted a 4-0 whitewash.

But after they fought back to win two of the next three Tests, and so win a series in India for the first time in 27 years, many said they could now return to world No 1.

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Former captain Michael Vaughan expressed both opinions in the space of five weeks, emphasising the ever-changing nature of England’s performances in 2012 and the difficulty in analysing their present condition.

Vaughan, of course, was simply articulating what most of us thought back then and what most of us now think.

For England’s performance in the first Test was so bad that the only question seemed to be not whether India would win the series but by how many.

But as Alastair Cook’s men dragged themselves up off the floor to win in Mumbai and Kolkata and draw in Nagpur to consolidate second place in the world Test rankings, five points behind South Africa, the sky once more seemed to be the limit.

With back-to-back Test series coming up against New Zealand in the first five months of 2013, followed by back-to-back Ashes series, there is no reason why England cannot rise up in glory in the coming 12 months.

Although I fully expect England to beat New Zealand and am confident of their chances against Australia, it is as well, however, to remember one key point.

Namely, it is bowlers who win matches, and the fact is South Africa have the best pace attack around in Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel, respectively first, second and eighth in the ICC rankings.

England have two outstanding bowlers in James Anderson and Graeme Swann, respectively sixth and seventh, and several very good ones in Monty Panesar, Steven Finn, Stuart Broad and Graham Onions.

But, although South Africa lack a top-class spinner, as do third-ranked Australia, they will not lightly relinquish the ICC mace prised from England last summer – and which only Kevin Pietersen seemed capable of keeping from their grasp.

Vaughan, however, is optimistic about what England might achieve going forward.

“Can England catch South Africa?” he wrote in a recent newspaper column.

“Yes, I think so. At some point, South Africa will lose Jacques Kallis and he will be a big loss. Also are South Africa capable of winning in India without top-class spinners such as Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar? Probably not.”

England’s focus going into 2013 is not so much on South Africa and trying to regain top spot but the fascinating series in front of them.

After all the upheaval of 2012, which saw Andrew Strauss retire and Pietersen deliver his infamous “it isn’t easy being me” speech after the Headingley Test, it should, first and foremost, be a period of greater stability which should help performances on the field.

No-one could have envisaged just how well Cook would have taken to the captaincy, or that he would suddenly have turned into a modern incarnation of Herbert Sutcliffe, but he clearly has the class and credentials to take England forward – as does Ashley Giles, appointed limited-overs head coach to take some of the burden off team director Andy Flower.

Crucially, England seem to have the right individuals in charge – men who inspire plenty of confidence.

However, there are still a number of areas that need to be addressed.

For instance, is Nick Compton the right man to open the batting and do England have the right batting order?

I would suggest they could improve it with a line-up of Cook, Joe Root, Jonathan Trott, Pietersen, Ian Bell and Jonny Bairstow, the latter highly unfortunate, in my opinion, to have lost his place and exactly the sort of character I would want to see taking on the Aussies next year.

Broad has had a tough time lately and one can only hope he regains form and fitness, while Finn could do with an injury-free run in the side.

Graham Onions should not be forgotten, while it remains to be seen whether Tim Bresnan will be spearheading Yorkshire’s quest for honours in their 150th anniversary year.

That is not to say that Australia, in particular, should be under-estimated; far from it.

In Michael Clarke they have the current No 1-ranked batsman and, in Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus, two of the top-10 bowlers.

But the ace in their pack in my view is pace bowler Mitchell Starc, a wonderful talent at the age of 22 and a man who gained potentially vital experience of English conditions with Yorkshire last summer.

If England take their eye off the ball and if Australia play to maximum capability, it is just possible that Starc’s successful foray in the county game could come back to hurt England. But although I expect Australia to be competitive, I do not expect them to beat England in England. And despite their gutsy fightback in India, which took nearly everyone by surprise, I do not expect England to magically usurp South Africa on the back of one successful series, for not only would South Africa have something to say about that but India, it must be said, are on the way down.

Yet England are deservedly one of the leading teams at present and well capable of having a successful 2013.

I could quite easily see them winning those next four series but, then again, who would be a sports pundit?