Just when things looked to be getting better for English cricket, a fifth day collapse against New Zealand ensured the return of the doom and gloom that has surrounded much of the build up to this summer's Ashes series. Needing to bat out the final day at Headingley in order to secure a draw in the second Test against the Kiwis and win the series 1-0, Alastair Cook's side suffered an afternoon collapse that saw them comprehensively defeated by 199 runs. But while England will be disappointed to have drawn a series they really should have won, it will only become clear just what impact the latest loss has had on the team when Cook leads his side out against Australia next month in Cardiff.
On the back of the equally frustrating drawn series in the West Indies, English cricket has undergone another period of public embarrassment, personnel change and Kevin Pietersen-based hysteria. While new head coach Trevor Bayliss wasn't appointed in time for the New Zealand series, there were new faces in the starting line-up in the two Tests against the Black Caps, with Yorkshire's Adam Lyth replacing Jonathan Trott at the top of the order and pace bowler Mark Wood coming in for Chris Jordan. With only one-day cricket to come between now and the start of the Ashes, the series against New Zealand was the last chance the new England management setup will have to see the players in five-day action.
While there may be a tweak here or there, there is a feeling the 11 players who ended the match in Leeds will be named for the first Test against Australia in July. Despite the frustrating end to the series, there were plenty of positives to take from these two Tests for England, and the hosts will need to focus on those as they prepare to take on an Australian team currently 4/11 with betfair to win retain the urn. So letís take a closer look at those players currently in line to start this summer's Ashes series for England.
Adam Lyth: The latest member of this exciting Yorkshire side to make the step up into the England team, Lyth took a couple of innings to find his feet in Test cricket. After a tough start to life on the international stage at Lord's, Lyth's impressive 107 in the first innings at Headingley should be enough for the batsman to hang onto his spot at the top of the order alongside Cook. The two left handers put on 177 runs for the first wicket in Leeds, and the selectors will be hoping that is a sign of things to come this summer.
Alastair Cook: There is no doubt that much of the criticism aimed at the England captain wouldn't have been as stinging as it has been if he had been scoring the runs he did against New Zealand. Right when he needed to get back among the runs, Cook produced a timely reminder of his talents as a batsman in the second innings at Lord's with a brilliant 162, followed up with back-to-back 50s at Headingley. The knives might have been put away for the time being after a couple of centuries this year, against the West Indies and now New Zealand, but Cook will be well aware that this summer's Ashes will have a massive say on his long-term role as captain.
Gary Ballance: The Yorkshire batsman might have been one of England's best players in the West Indies but Ballance was brought back down to earth with a bang against the Kiwis, scoring 36 runs in four innings, 29 of which came in the first innings of the second Test. Boasting an average of 51.19 from his 13 England appearances, Ballance has done enough in his young Test career to warrant starting his first Ashes series this summer.
Ian Bell: He might have outscored Ballance against New Zealand, by a huge seven runs, but the experienced batsman's place is in more doubt than his team-mate. With just two centuries to his name in 2014 and 2015, Bell needs to step up and be counted this summer if he's going to continue to keep his place in this side. Despite his solid international career, there is a view that the 33-year old doesn't post enough big scores at those crucial times against the best teams in the world, and Bell could be in danger of losing his place if he doesn't get off to a strong start against the Aussies.
Joe Root: England's new vice-captain might have endured an absolute stinker of a second Test at Headingley, posting scores of 1 and 0 on his home ground, but Root's innings of 98 and 84 at Lord's proved that the 24-year-old will be a crucial part of the hosts' plans this summer. Root, who became the youngest English batsman to score a century against Australia at Lord's back in 2013, will be a target of the tourists' bowlers during the upcoming Ashes and much of England's hopes could come down to whether the Yorkshireman shines.
Ben Stokes: Having returned to the England side after missing the World Cup, Stokes failed to really deliver in the West Indies, only to steal the show in the first Test of the summer. After hitting 92 in the first innings of the first match against the Kiwis, the all-rounder scored the fastest Test century at Lord's and the second quickest by an English batsman, reaching his ton from just 85 balls, following that up with figures of 3-38 with the ball to earn the man of the match award. Stokes was one of the rare highlights for England from the last Ashes, and he could have a huge role to play this summer.
Jos Buttler: As well as making real strides in terms of his glove-work, Buttler has started to find his feet with the bat in Test cricket. While he might be prone to reverting to his aggressive one-day style at times, there are plenty of England fans who are more than happy to have that sort of player in this Test side. Still learning his trade at international level, it's going to be interesting to see how the swashbuckling Buttler handles the pressures of playing an Ashes series.
Moeen Ali: It's been a tough few months for Moeen and the all-rounder is showing signs that he might not be handling the responsibilities of being the team's only real spin bowling option that well. After starting his England career as a batsman who could effectively hold up an end with the ball, Moeen was relied upon as the team's only recognised spin bowler against New Zealand, dropping down to eight in the batting order. A solid first Test against the Kiwis with both bat and ball was followed up with a well below-par showing at Headingley, and a rethink could be in order regarding his role this summer.
Stuart Broad: England's leading wicket-taker of the series, Broad appears to be hitting his stride at just the right time. It's been a few years since English cricket fans really saw the best of the fast bowler but his 13 wickets in two Tests against New Zealand will give Broad a huge amount of confidence heading into this Ashes even if he did go for a lot of runs. With home advantage this summer, along with James Anderson, Broad could hold the key to England reclaiming the famous urn from the Aussies.
Mark Wood: As well as adding some real wag in the England tail, Durham fast bowler Wood slipped relatively seamlessly into Test cricket, taking nine wickets in two Test matches. The likeable 25-year-old looks to be competing with Chris Jordan for the final pace bowling berth and his performances against the Kiwis won't have done his chances any harm. With only two Test appearances to his name, that lack of experience may be a concern to the England selectors.
James Anderson: Having broken Ian Botham's record as England's all-time leading wicket-taker, James Anderson will be hoping to cap off a memorable 2015 with another Ashes success. While the series against New Zealand might not have been Anderson's best two Test matches, there were some signs that the 32-year-old is warming up nicely ahead of the summer. After playing a major role in England's success between 2009 and 2013, Anderson will be key to this team's hopes of getting back to where they were a couple of years ago.