Cricket: Alleyne for all reasons

The World Cup is beckoning for an unsung hero.
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IF ANYTHING matches England's poor recent Test results in Australia - the sensational victory in Melbourne not quite having altered the course of history - it is their one-day record. In the past 20 years Test series might have disappeared down the dunny in a style entirely befitting the British liking for lavatorial humour but they have usually been accompanied not long after by the limited overs versions as well.

Triangular one-day competitions were revolutionary when they were first dreamed up back in 1979-80 by the Australian Board in cahoots with Channel Nine Television, who realised that here was an exciting form of the game which the public would love. So revolutionary were they, indeed, that England decided it would be much wiser to play safe and not introduce them at home until last summer, 19 years later.

The Australian tournaments have all been played in much the same format. The sides play each other four or five times and the top two in the qualifying table meet in a three-match final. England have played in five of these so-called World Series, including the bizarre quadrangular contest featuring both Australia and Australia A four years ago.

In that first season, England reached the final against West Indies, a pairing which was hardly in accordance with the desires of either the cricket or television marketing men, and lost 2-0. Since then they have won once (in 1986-87 when coincidentally, or not, they also won the Test series) and failed to qualify three times. Their overall return of 20 wins and 23 defeats with one abandonment in 44 matches is hardly abject, it is just they have lost when it has gone down to the wire.

One-dayers have become tarnished. This is partly because there are too many of them. The first World Series match in Australia was only the 75th of all one-day internationals, which included two World Cups, and there have now been 1,377 (the 1,378th takes place in Auckland on Saturday before the 1,379th between England and Australia the next day).

It is also because they have become associated in some places with illegal betting rings and rigged results. An inquiry is urgently needed and it is to be hoped that the International Cricket Council instigates one when they meet in New Zealand next week. All this has probably caused a certain sniffiness towards the limited overs game whose skills have been regularly underestimated, if not its capacity to generate thrills, crowds and vast amounts of money.

"I treat it as another game from three- and four-day cricket which demand other things," said Mark Alleyne, who is in England's party of 16 for their sixth outing in the World Series. "I love it and I love playing it, but it is totally different."

This is an attitude which England have grasped slowly and reluctantly. They seem nowhere nearer finalising their squad for the World Cup, thus giving the impression that they know this one-day lark requires something different but they are not sure what it is. While, for instance, there is room for Alleyne and Vince Wells in Australia, there is none for Ronnie Irani who scored nearly 750 one-day runs last summer and whose all-round form was generally better than that of the other two.

Still, Alleyne is a deserved beneficiary of this uncertainty. He is 30, the captain of Gloucestershire, where he has long been more than a journeyman all-rounder and Australia provides him with the opportunity to present his credentials to play in a World Cup.

"I was a bit surprised to be going but not exactly unprepared," he said. "I was in the original squad of 37, from which they said all one-day teams would come last August and then named again when they whittled that down to 23. I couldn't say what the selectors are thinking, but they're not looking to experiment as such now.

"This is what I've waited for all my cricketing life. I'm far from apprehensive. In fact I'm fizzing. I can't wait. I've got the opportunity to show what I can do now."

It is mildly perverse, therefore, as Alleyne conceded, that he might have earned his selection not for his one-day performances last season but for his Championship form. "My four-day form was certainly more outstanding and the side did better in that," he said. "But I think it's significant that I usually contributed something in the one-day games. I have become a more consistent cricketer in the past two or three seasons and that's what the selectors have been looking for."

These contributions count enormously in the short form of the game. The timely 10 off six balls, the tidy four overs, the willingness to stop one becoming two make it a team game which is unfairly maligned.

Whether the World Series will help the selectors to decide what they want for a World Cup in England in late spring when, actually, specialist seam bowling may win England the day is another issue. Winning it for the second time will hardly be a hindrance, though.