Cricket: Bad omens but a great opportunity

World Cup countdown: Only six weeks of the best will do if England are to flout form and history
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ENGLAND HAVE been plotting their strategy and refining their squad for the World Cup for at least 18 months. There have been times lately when it has looked as though the process can hardly have taken 18 minutes.

Videos, intense coaching sessions, detailed team talks to break down opposition weaknesses and psychologists to enhance individual strengths have purportedly been involved in a highly sophisticated effort to secure the trophy for the first time. The way England have sometimes played, observers could be forgiven for thinking that their entire policy had been devised on the back of a fag packet in David Graveney's front room.

It all might have been quite deliberate, of course, a plan designed to such perfection that the team will peak at exactly the right time. The next six weeks will determine that and, indeed, if England are still in the tournament after six weeks they will have either won it or have been beaten finalists. Either would be a considerable triumph.

The indications are not especially encouraging. England are fourth favourites for the tournament behind South Africa, Australia and Pakistan but the odds of 5-1 must be based on the perceived advantages of playing at home, rather than form. Neither happens to be in the host's favour. No home team has won the competition in six previous attempts and England have not won any of their past six one-day series, from that against the West Indies last spring to the recent bunfight in Sharjah.

Graveney, the chairman, and his fellow selectors appear to have picked a curate's egg of a team, to have erred on the side of experience (which might cost them dear in the field), to have changed their tactics willy- nilly and, going into the key opening match against Sri Lanka at Lord's on Friday, to have produced more frailties than strengths.

The biggest liability is what was, perversely, the biggest asset: the opening batsmen. England appear to be starting each innings from a position of about 10 for 2, which makes it all uphill. Both Alec Stewart, the captain, and Nick Knight have been growing increasingly out of sorts, men whose joint mission in life is to cut down the time between walking from the pavilion and walking back to it.

It is a conundrum, make no mistake, but England must go along with the pair. Stewart remains the archetypal pro. He claims to have rediscovered his rhythm, if not his footwork ("I never did move my feet much," he said after Friday's game against Kent when he was, as sod's law was enacted, run out when beginning to look comfortable). It is hard to see where else he should bat in this team.

Knight is the only England player to have made one-day hundreds on successive days and a year ago in the Caribbean looked to be one of the most accomplished practitioners in the world. He is doing lots of things wrong at present, though what he is not doing is giving the ball the full treatment. It is much too late to change now and talk of promoting the fearsome hitter Andrew Flintoff is surely fanciful. If that was the way to go, surely Alistair Brown, of Surrey, would not have been overlooked. Knight's class has to be backed.

For the moment, Flintoff might do more damage at number six supported by the apparently settled three, four and five of Graeme Hick, Graham Thorpe and Neil Fairbrother. The accumulating strengths of Fairbrother and Thorpe are not to be underestimated but the big totals Hick must return will be instrumental. In Australia in January and February he was briefly a monumental figure with a robust outlook. Now, at 32 going on 33, after all these summers, he has a final chance to seize the moment.

Of the main attack, Darren Gough is looking for all the world like one of the best bowlers in it. Alan Mullally, it must be assumed out of kindness, is keeping his powder dry and, under it, hiding his manual on how to swing the ball. Gus Fraser and Ian Austin, who was once a county journeyman but is now being exalted for his spring omniscience, will compete for a place. As for the rest, they must hope that no machine can run smoothly without its bits and pieces.

At Canterbury on Friday, England won cosily enough, as they ought to have done, without disproving the theory that they have a tendency to make the big mistakes.

Then there is Stewart's captaincy. It need not be imaginative but it has to be alert. Against Kent, with the ball shifting about all over, Andrew Symonds was playing his shots. In the 18th over he edged an Austin outswinger to slip. There was no slip.

The fielding is not all it is elsewhere in the tournament. Nasser Hussain took a catch to die for on Friday, but as he will not start in the team he will not be at backward point. There are some sound fielders, and some brittle ones, but spectacular ones are in short supply.

England may go far on team spirit, which seems high. But have they bonded enough? They have been in dispute over pay, and when a player is fined pounds 1,000 10 days before the tournament for refusing to attend an official function the answer may not be hard to find.

Sri Lanka on Friday will decide the tone of the proceedings. But tipping England to appear in the final at Lord's in June is still an affair of the heart. Still, some of the greatest romances have started life on fag packets.