Australia's first-class travellers

England's fielding and running between the wickets will have to improve if the clear favourites are to be rivalled; Derek Pringle looks at the leading contenders as the World Cup curtain rises
Click to follow
FIVE weeks today, in Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore, the sixth World Cup will be raised by the captain of the winning team. However, the bare bones of that achievement - any one of seven teams have a fair chance of attaining it - will not tell the whole story.

The victors will have had to win three consecutive matches after qualifying from a five-match round robin, but this is already a troubled competition and the unseen ordeals of potential terrorist threats, innumerable internal flights, delays, diarrhoea and fatigue, will be as sapping as the cricket. When the moment arrives, the 1996 world champions will have exhibited much more than their one-day prowess, and conquered far more than their opponents.

Could that team be England, particularly after another gruelling three- month overseas tour? History suggests it won't, despite the fact that their team members play more one-day cricket than anyone else.

Perhaps that is why England have contested three of the five finals since 1975, without ever winning the trophy. These were trouble-free events which ran more smoothly than England's game plan. England have never had the necessary zest or adventure to overcome more inspired opponents in the final, as shown in 1992 at the MCG, where unfancied Pakistan seemed to find their feet while England looked all out on theirs.

Having just been drubbed 6-1 by South Africa in the recent one-day series, they show scant evidence to suggest that they can succeed where their predecessors failed. And yet confidence is high - despite one or two injury worries - as Michael Atherton and his team prepare to get their campaign under way on Wednesday against New Zealand in Ahmedabad.

The scenario for the players is simple: qualify for the quarter-finals (if not, important heads will surely roll), and another final is only two wins away. The delicious uncertainty of the one-off occasion can inspire or overwhelm the most experienced campaigner.

England have the talent to match all but Australia, the clear favourites, though both India and Pakistan are talented enough to win as long as they are not intimidated by national expectation.

Australia have always travelled well in the sub-continent, where they become an even tighter, tougher unit than at home, a characteristic they displayed in 1987 by winning the trophy in Calcutta after beating Pakistan in the semi-final in Lahore. An abundance of young talent makes them a stronger fielding side than all except South Africa, but it is their brilliant running between the wickets that stands them above the competition. Rarely is a maiden over notched up against them. If England are to prosper beyond the quarter-finals, it is these two aspects of their game that will need to be sharpened.

However, there exist deeper structural flaws in England's set-up. On the whole, Atherton's men lack cool batting heads and are a class bowler light of a competitive attack which is over-reliant on Dominic Cork. To compound matters, England's spinners are steady rather than dangerous and despite Darren Gough's recent return to form in South Africa, there remains a shadow over his fitness.

Of the main batsmen, only Atherton as anchor, Neil Fairbrother as middle- order dasher and Graham Thorpe appear to relish the pressure of the chase, and have the deft touch needed to keep the score ticking over when gaps are blocked. The latter pair will have to play consistently well if England are to succeed in chasing scores of over 240.

However, batting first will be a different proposition. Graeme Hick, whose last visit to the sub-continent saw the first of his many "arrivals" in Test cricket, should dominate, despite a blindspot against inswinging yorkers. Many of the grounds are small and if he takes his lead from Navjot Sidhu, India's beturbaned thumper, few spinners will feel at ease when they bowl at him. If anyone has it in him to play the kind of innings Graham Gooch played against India's spinners in the 1987 semi-final in Bombay, it is Hick. Then Gooch set up victory, literally sweeping his and England's way to the final with a brilliant century on a turning pitch.

That World Cup was almost 10 years ago, and despite the absence of either India or Pakistan in the final, the competition was a huge success on and off the field. Like then, day matches will start at 9am, when heavy overnight dew will favour those bowling first. The new ball must not be wasted, a fact Atherton will have drummed into Cork and Peter Martin, England's likely opening attack.

However, in keeping with the modern era, which is governed by TV schedules, several games, including the final, are to be played under lights. This will offset the advantages of any early dampness as well as allowing Pakistan - should they field second - to take refreshment during Ramadhan; the Muslim fast will similarly affect India's captain Mohammed Azharuddin. Only an evening dew, a dirty ball and a shortage of the required candlepower in some stadia will dissuade teams from batting second at night.

The pitches in Pakistan, where England play all but one of their group matches, are generally even better for batting on than those in India, where the ball often grips just enough to help the spinner. Most, however, will be devoid of grass, sporting bare surfaces that quickly sandpaper the shine from the ball.

This means reverse swing will possibly play an even greater part than spin bowling, particularly in the final stages, when bowlers such as Pakistan's Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, Australia's Glenn McGrath and Paul Reiffel, and England's Darren Gough should prevent batsmen from taking the type of liberties usually associated with the last 10 overs of an innings.

When the World Cup was last held in this part of the world, cricket aroused far greater fanaticism among its followers than religion and politics. Unhappily, that may be about to change as the spectre of terrorism in Sri Lanka and fundamentalism in Pakistan takes its toll on the psyche. As Australia and West Indies become more jittery, having asked for their group matches in Colombo - scene of the recent massive terrorist bomb - to be rearranged, the innocent charm is lost.

But if opinion is split over the decision taken by two of the tournament's draw cards, then the rise of fundamentalism and the unreasoning terror it preaches at least makes their decision understandable if not entirely forgiveable. Should other sides begin to wobble, England, who have a siege mentality on tour second to none, will surely start to move up the pecking order.

If reports from trouble spots such as Colombo, Karachi and Peshawar - where England have two of their group matches - are accurate, then this competition could yet be decided by the team whose cricketers play best wearing Kevlar jackets instead of coloured flannels.