Captain Alastair Cook has challenged his team to “go to the next level” after knocking South Africa from the top of the Test rankings this winter.
England have further furnished their reputation as a growing force on the Test stage after the 2-1 series win, however, a 280-run defeat at Centurion today left Cook calling for greater consistency from his squad.
Scintillating match-winning bursts have marked England’s success in South Africa – which enabled them to wrap up the series even before they arrived at Centurion – but Cook thinks they must strive for more if they are to climb from their current fifth-placing in the ICC’s Test Rankings.
“We’re a dangerous side to play against, absolutely, but for us to go to the next level we have to become more consistent in all of our areas and not have as many off days as we’re having,” he told ecb.co.uk.
“This side has got the ability to change games and win games quickly.
“Just last week it was level and then Stuart (Broad) obviously got six-for and won us that game very quickly. At Cape Town we didn’t win but we should have been pushing for a win if we had of held out catches.
“That partnership off 200 in a session (between Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes) took the game away from South Africa. We have that ability and yet we are still not playing to our potential consistently.
“If we had of played well here for the five days then that would have been four games where we played really well.
“It just shows that we’re getting better, but I was just chatting to the guys there and there’s still a huge amount of work which we need to do if we want to get better.”
If Cook’s assessement sounds harsh in the wake of such a memorable series win it is an example of the increased standards around the current England team.
In eight months under Head Coach Trevor Bayliss they have now won back the Ashes and beaten the top-ranked Test team away from home either side of a hard-fought 2-0 series defeat against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates.
“If you had of said eight weeks ago that we’d be stood here 2-1 then we’d be very happy – we’re more than happy, we are ecstatic with the way we’ve played – but obviously there are areas where we have got to get better at,” Cook added.
“The games that we’ve won we took every catch. The games that we haven’t won, obviously today and at Cape Town, we dropped far too many chances. That’s an area (to improve).
“Batting we’ve scored the runs but we haven’t quite got it the right way.”
— Stuart Broad (@StuartBroad8) January 26, 2016
Cook will nonetheless head back to England this week enthused by the propsect of leading a team capable of rising up the rankings in 2016.
Home series against Sri Lanka and Pakistan await in the summer before they head to the sub-continent to meet Bangladesh and India.
The series against India, who have taken over from South Africa at the top of the rankings, looms as the most significant test although a tough summer awaits.
Sri Lanka won last time they were in England while Pakistan will be buoyed by that series win two months ago.
Cook believes, however, that his players will take plenty from that series too and thinks that when this winter is assessed performances on the turning dust-bowls of the UAE will offer an equally important measure of the steel and determination he wants to see in his team.
“The UAE was a really good tour in one sense. In real difficut conditions we competed really well against Pakistan and actually we didn’t deserve a 2-0 series loss,” he said.
“We learnt a lot in terms of what it takes for the next time we go to the sub-continent. We’ll get tested in eight months’ time against India.
“Although we lost three Test matches this winter, and won just two, it’s been good winter in terms of this side getting better.
“We are still a long way away from this group of players reaching their potential.”
That is perhaps a scary proposition given the extreme highs experiences in South Africa – most significantly Stokes’ record-breaking double-century at Newlands as he an Jonny Bairstow embarked on that record-breaking stand of 399.
Asked to name his key moments with the bat over the four games Cook understandably pointed to Stokes and Bairstow, but also suggested a key marker was laid down on the opening day in Durban.
“I think Compo’s 80 at Durban on the first day,” said Cook, referring to the recalled Nick Compton’s 85 after England were sent in on a gloomy morning.
“To get through that day and keep us in the series (was important). It was a good toss for them to win and then we bowled particularly well there.”
Victory in Durban was constructed on the back of the type of even team performance that Cook and the coaching staff will look to iron into performances during 2016.
Very enjoyable Series …England produced the big moments …SA have 2 outstanding young players in Rabada and Bavuma …
— David ‘Bumble’ Lloyd (@BumbleCricket) January 26, 2016
Eradicating the type of batting collpase that was seen today in Centurion will be at the heart of that as England were bundled out for 101 as 20-year-old seamer Kagiso Rabada became the youngest South Africa to claim a Test 10-wicket haul.
The fact the match was a dead rubber was of little consolation to Cook after seeing his side also succumb to a wide-margin defeat against Australia at the Kia Oval in the summer after the Ashes had already been won.
“It was a limp performance at best and frustrating because we didn’t want to end the tour like we have done over the last five days,” he said.
“It shows that if you’re not quite there mentally – that real desire was probably just missing coming down from a high like we were last week.
“It was incredibly hard, twice now we’ve done it and played a pretty bad game.”