London: England coach Andy Flower admits his players will need to show significant improvement from their drawn series against New Zealand if they are to retain the Ashes against Australia this year. Flower's side narrowly avoided a shock defeat in the Test series in New Zealand this week after grinding out a nerve-jangling draw in Auckland after the previous two matches had also ended in stalemate.
England were relieved to avoid the embarrassment of losing to a team who came into the series in disarray following a poor run of results and controversy over Ross Taylor's removal as captain. But Flower knows that kind of lacklustre showing won't be enough against Australia, who travel to face England before hosting a second Ashes series later this year.
"We've got a big year of international cricket and we will need to be sharper, better and more skilful," said Flower. "But it has been a wonderful winter and to win in India was a really special moment. The only series we have lost was the one-day series in India."
While England were struggling to avoid defeat in New Zealand, Australia were slumping to a dismal 4-0 series loss in India, where Flower's men won 2-1 three months earlier. Even so, Flower refused to write off the Australians and preferred to focus on England's forthcoming rematch against New Zealand on home soil, which serves as a warm-up for the Ashes.
"They had a tough time out there (in India). It's a really tough place to tour," said Flower. "The Ashes are a little way off. There is some great cricket to be played in the meantime, by us, we hope." England, ranked the second best Test side in the world, were criticised for showing complacency against New Zealand, yet Flower insisted they had not taken their opponents lightly.
"We place importance on all international series and it would be disrespectful to do anything other than that - there was no complacency in our camp," he said. "We understood it would be a tough challenge to come here and win. Just because you are ranked above another team it doesn't give you the right to win any series."
Flower was unimpressed with some of England's play however, and he conceded their problems were entirely of their own making. "It was a good escape in the end. But we got ourselves into trouble, we didn't play particularly great cricket and did well to get a draw," he said. "Ian Bell and Matt Prior were excellent; they fought hard and that's a quality of the team, but we have to be better to get into winning positions, not scratching our way to a draw. We didn't move the ball sideways and if you don't move the ball against international batsmen you are not going to create chances. That was worrying for me. They swung the ball and we didn't do that too much."