But in the dizzying merry-go-round world of the ICC rankings they now find themselves sitting pretty at the top of the tree in the 50-over stuff going into the five-match series against the Proteas.
Whatever your thoughts on the fickle nature of the rankings system it’s a significant turnaround given that just 16 months ago England were pilloried after a flaky World Cup campaign that saw them inch past the Netherlands, lose to Ireland and ultimately exit at the quarter-final stage.
Under the stewardship of Alastair Cook – who’s been a revelation at the top of the order – England are unbeaten in 12 matches in 2012 and have found a formula that works for them: five frontline batsmen, five frontline bowlers, with Craig Kieswetter sandwiched in between.
In this kind of form the series against South Africa represents an opportunity to get back the feel good factor that has deserted English cricket over the last five weeks.
In truth, whatever happens in the ODI series the Proteas can go home and pat themselves on the back for a job extremely well done having achieved their goal of becoming the world’s No.1 Test side, but England know from past experience – having been thumped in ODI series after consecutive Ashes victories – that one-day defeats can take the gloss off Test match heroics.
We all knew that the urn was what really mattered, but the one-day drubbings still left a bitter aftertaste.
There is also the bigger picture to look at. As England marched up the Test rankings over the last three years 50-over cricket inevitably took something of a backseat as key men were rested for ODI series to ensure they were in peak condition when it came to five-day contests.
Now England have, somewhat surprisingly and ahead of schedule, found themselves at No1 we can expect to see more emphasis placed on ODIs in the lead up to the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
With the exception of Twenty20 captain Stuart Broad – who looked jaded in the Test series against South Africa and in need of a rest ahead of next month’s World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka – England have picked a full-strength squad for this series as they look to continue their unbeaten streak.
England will be keen to find room in the side for Jonny Bairstow after his fearless, flair-filled brace of fifties at Lord’s but it’s hard to see how he comfortably slots in without upsetting the balance of the side. With Cook, Bell, Trott and Morgan nailed on as four of the top five, Ravi Bopara is the man under threat, particularly given his lack of match practice after his break from the game due to personal reasons.
But Bopara fulfils an important role as the sixth bowling option and if Bairstow gets the nod then that duty falls to Jonathan Trott – a prospect that will be gratefully received by Amla, de Villiers and co. The other option would be for Bairstow to take the gloves with Kieswetter making way, but the Somerset stumper has made a positive start in his new role as ‘finisher’.
Elsewhere, the series represents an exciting opportunity for Chris Woakes – the beneficiary of Broad’s absence. The Warwickshire all-rounder is unlikely to make the starting XI for the first match at Cardiff but Tim Bresnan’s bowling has lacked zip all summer and with Woakes batting out of his skin of late – in the last month he’s hit two Championship tons and taken Australia A for 92 – he is the more enticing option with the willow at No7.
England’s last six Test debutants (Taylor, Bairstow, Patel, Shahzad, Morgan and Tredwell) have all had their initial experience of international cricket in pyjamas before donning the whites. Woakes is a good bet to become the seventh.
Whatever the score-line in the ODIs, the prevailing memory of this summer for English fans will be surrendering the Test mace after being comprehensively outplayed by Graeme Smith’s South Africans, but a series win and a pyjama party to consolidate England’s position at the top of the ODI rankings and round off the summer will offer a much-needed tonic after a chastening few weeks and provide a boost ahead of the trip to Sri Lanka to defend their Twenty20 crown.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge