Cricket: England adjust to tactical advances

Batting options must be carefully considered against Sri Lanka for today's Triangular final at Lord's; With Darren Gough offering pace and Peter Martin outswing, Sri Lanka's batsmen should not take liberties lightly
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The Independent Online
TO PINCH hit or not to pinch hit? That is the question facing both England and Sri Lanka in today's final of the Emirates Triangular Tournament at Lord's. So far, the tactic, used to maximise scoring in the first 15 overs when fielding restrictions are in place, has not been a rampant success. Unless a change in fortune is due, the outcome of the match could rest upon which team best utilises the middle and end overs, rather than those at the beginning.

One-day cricket is a game that is constantly evolving. What works well for a few years suddenly becomes cliched, as players become wise to the methods employed. For that reason, being a one-trick wonder has a limited shelf life and, having reinvented one-day batting in the last World Cup, Sri Lanka may have difficulty in reining back.

The key, as to most things these days, is flexibility, especially in England where the pitches and the white ball offer the new-ball bowlers extra movement. According to Sri Lanka, the ball being used is too hard. If it is, the extra hardness should suit their hitters more, a suggestion borne out by the fact that each total in the competition to date has exceeded 200.

The evidence proving the folly of pinch hitting in Blighty, if not categorical, is certainly persuasive. In the six innings so far played in this tournament, the scores after 15 overs have been 102-3, 41-4, 87-2, 67-4, 76-3, and 73-2. Apart from Nick Knight, who scored a high-quality 74 on Tuesday in the match England lost to South Africa, none of the openers in the tournament has passed 36.

As used to be the case, the bulk of the scoring in all three games has come from those batting from No 3 to No 5 in the order, with Graeme Hick and Alec Stewart doing the bulk of the damage the last time these two sides met. Unless the Sri Lanka openers, Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana, can overcome the new ball, expect Aravinda de Silva and Arjuna Ranatunga to return the compliment.

If the instinct to hit early on is resisted, the main skirmish for control will take place in the middle overs. With the increase in gaps decreasing the risks needed to be taken by batsmen, fielding will be vital during this period. Dropped catches, or anything more than the odd fumble, could cost the offending side dear.

It is during this phase of the game that England could make things difficult for Sri Lanka, especially if Alan Mullally and Robert Croft continue to apply the squeeze that has followed the timely incisions made by Darren Gough with the new ball.

Ever since his show-stealing performance at Headingley in the final Test, Gough has bowled superbly well. With him offering the pace and Peter Martin the outswing, Sri Lanka's batsmen should not be able to take liberties lightly.

Indeed, the home side's sole cause for concern, as it has been for most of the summer, will be the weakness of their tail. Starting with the former one-day captain, Adam Hollioake, England's lower-middle order has twice collapsed in a heap. Such fragility - possibly the consequence of playing too many specialist bowlers - is sure to affect the top order, who must now be more cautious, and therefore more inhibited, than they otherwise might.

Hollioake's lack of form poses another dilemma. As Stewart's understudy as captain, the selectors - they will probably want him to captain England in Bangladesh while Stewart lands with the Ashes squad in Australia - need him to be in the side and playing well. So far, with both bat and ball, he has been anonymous at best, and he should really be replaced for today's match by Matthew Fleming, had the Kent man not been sent back to his county.

Alternatively, as Hollioake has bowled just seven overs in two matches, England could drop Alistair Brown down the order and open instead with Michael Atherton. So far the Lancashire opener, along with the economical Angus Fraser has experienced something of a busman's holiday. Perhaps it is time for at least one of them to don their blue pyjamas.

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