Atherton in a lost world

England go back to the drawing board after another one-day of humiliation leaves their World Cup plans in tatters
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The Independent Online
ANOTHER day, another crisis. With 24 hours before England name their14-man World Cup squad, all is turmoil. If the selectors had any firm plans before this series then another humilating defeat has confirmed what most already suspected: it's back to the drawing board time again.

The damage is deep. Quite apart from being regularly humbled by a South African side for whom they had little regard before this tour, England now have a captain as disillusioned as his predecessor Graham Gooch. If he hasn't done so already, Michael Atherton must be perilously close to losing faith in his team, and he now looks a thoroughly dejected man.

Any side can lose a one-day match, but after Friday's humiliation - the fifth defeat in six games - England have now become little more than a tasty morsel to be toyed with before South Africa join the main guests for the global banquet due to begin on St Valentine's day. Any serious World Cup contender would not have had much trouble winning at Cape Town and East London given the winning positions on offer. England managed to throw it away twice. Goodness knows what the mood is like today for the final one-day match in Port Elizabeth.

England may have been in three World Cup finals, but only once, in 1987, have they come really close to lifting the trophy, after losing to Australia by seven runs. They may have been the best-drilled team in the tournament in 1992, before fatigue usurped form, but their predictability allowed Pakistan to plot and plan their batsmen out of the game.

Not much has changed. Though England's cricketers play more one-day cricket than anywhere else in the world, they lag well behind when it comes to keen-edged internationals over 50 overs with fielding restrictions other than the four-in-the-circle rule. England came to South Africa looking for solutions to the problems this format throws up, but after experimenting wildly and with little success, they are no closer to finding any.

A few names can at least now be crossed off the list for India. Unless England can get to the final and fly Dermot Reeve in for the last 10 overs of the innings, the Warwickshire captain will be nibbling poppadoms in front of his telly in Birmingham rather than on the verandah of the Breach Kandy club in Bombay.

Reeve is almost 33, and although he has largely been credited - often falsely - with bringing innovation to the one-day game, he is not nearly good enough to play at this level. Recently someone suggested he be made captain instead of Atherton, who is not only relatively inexperienced - not doing it for Lancashire - but is clearly jaded too. It is an interesting but flawed idea. Although Atherton could do with a bit more of Reeve's joie de vivre, today's teams simply cannot afford to carry their captains if they are to retain a competitive edge.

For years Reeve has feasted on the predictability of county opposition, and although his flair for picking up gongs in Lord's finals has brought him one from Buckingham Palace, at this level, the letters OBE might just as well stand for Ordinary But Enthusiastic. That however should not preclude him from getting Ray Illingworth's job should England fail to haul themselves from their present trough.

The other two players to miss out from the 17 still in South Africa are likely to be Mark Ramprakash and Mike Watkinson, although Phil DeFreitas has also come under pressure from Angus Fraser and Tim Munton. What England most need to back up Cork, Martin and Gough is an accurate bowler with enough pace or bounce to dissuade batsmen from taking liberties.

Ramprakash, who has had a miserable Test series, is a fine one-day player who may well have kept Robin Smith out of the final 14. He is also a far superior fielder, an area where England trail all the best teams by considerable margins.

As it is, Smith's one-day record got him the nod, though the fact that he must bat in the top three if he is to be effective limits his chances of playing. For that reason England would probably be better off picking Nasser Hussain, a batsman deft enough to bat anywhere and particularly good at manoeuvring spinners into gaps when boundaries are protected. He has also just returned from England A's successful tour of Pakistan, where he captained the side.

By contrast Smith looks to hit the ball with the full face of the bat and needs time to play himself in. A factor that means he will be competing with Alec Stewart's silky touch and Graeme Hick's more direct approach, though Stewart could drop to No 7 should he keep wicket.

However, that is unlikely to happen while Jack Russell retains his run- a-ball mastery. Russell is England's most awkward batsman, using angles and shots few captains can hope to set a field to, a fact Atherton should be prepared to exploit in Pakistan by giving Russell a roving role in the order.

England's major problem has been the failure of their batsmen at key moments. Only Graham Thorpe and Neil Fairbrother have shown the range of strokes needed to chase runs under pressure, though even they have come unstuck. If England are to chase successfully they need to bolster the side with all-rounders capable of keeping cool heads. So far Craig White has been too inconsistent to warrant the automatic selection seemingly bestowed on him by Atherton, and every time Cork, Gough and DeFreitas find a bat in their hands, popcorn seems to explode in their heads.

However, on the evidence of this series, Graeme Hick will bowl his off- spin in Pakistan more often than Neil Smith will bowl his. If the selectors want to take a chance - and they ought - then Ronnie Irani, Essex's feisty all-rounder, and Dean Headley should be sent for at once. After all, once pride has gone, there is really nothing else to lose.