Cricket: England aim to dig in for final battles

Cricket: The preliminary skirmishes are over as Stewart sounds rallying call to his tiring troops
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ENGLAND BEGAN this tournament providing abundant evidence of a force which could conquer the world. This is still not beyond them but since those heady days of three weeks ago they have sometimes given the impression of a fighting unit that would have trouble annexing their own back garden.

Perhaps this has been caused by an inadvertent relaxation, knowing that they had already advanced far enough to reach the finals of the Carlton & United one-day series but it is a potentially dangerous business.

Australia finished their qualifying games with a resounding flourish, jackbooting their way round the place with a total of 310 at Melbourne, and have lost no time in suggesting that they now occupy the ground which matters and have a distinct advantage.

So they do but, as Alec Stewart, the England captain, said defiantly: "We're in a new competition as far as I'm concerned now. We've had the first competition when we finished second but qualified, which is what counts, and now we've got to finish first."

This was slightly defensive but Stewart has a point - it is what finals are for - and readily conceded that his side had lost two games they should have won.

There is nothing wrong with this side's spirit and nothing much awry either with the bowling and fielding. It is the batting which has exposed their vulnerability. Stewart said they had made runs sometimes and sometimes they had not. But too often it has been the latter. Only twice on the six occasions they have gone in first in this series have they made above 230. Once, they made 302 and lost, but that was the game at Adelaide where special circumstances pertained, England failing to keep their heads as cool as they might have done and Sri Lanka batting out of their socks.

"We don't have bowlers v batters," said Stewart. "We're all in it together. At times we've bowled well, at others we've batted well but it's a real team effort."

But he will be aware that the batsmen owe the bowlers a few now. If he and Nick Knight, the openers, could recapture their proper form it would make a marked difference. One of them has often got out early, neither of them has gone on when they have got in. It is perplexing.

Throughout the tournament England's bowlers have rarely let the opposition dictate matters. Stewart has not had many options - Australia, for instance, can use seven or eight bowlers and often do - but he has juggled them sensibly. The new-ball partnership of Darren Gough and Alan Mullally has worked with comfortable proficiency. Gough, as Stewart said, was the more explosive but Mullally was extremely steady.

Mullally, indeed, has been one of the most parsimonious bowlers around. He has never quite repeated the heroics of his 4 for 18 in the opening match against Australia and has not been as uniformly miserly as Adam Dale, but he has conceded an average of only 3.7 runs an over. Dale, for his part, has personified the timeless merits of direction and length, merits which rightly earned him inclusion yesterday in the Australian squad for the tour of West Indies. To win, England must try to hatch a plan which involves knocking him about a bit. Pinch-hitting may not be the craze it was but the first 15 overs are still important in setting the momentum of an innings.

The next few days (the first of three possible final matches will be in Sydney tomorrow only if the rain relents, and the forecast is poor) will determine not only the Carlton & United Series but will bring England closer to their World Cup squad. Different conditions - except the rain anyway - may exist in England in May but, if this team is victorious, they will be hard to disassemble.

"The ultimate goal which was planned 18 months ago is to make sure England win the World Cup," said Stewart. "This is all part of the planning for the World Cup. We have to make sure we have the best 15 players who can win the World Cup in England. I know what my 15 are now but there are three other selectors. The England World Cup side of 1992 [which was beaten in the final in Australia] was one of the best I have ever played in. This one has become a very good side. We have made progress since a year ago and we have played some fine cricket in this competition."

Both Gough and Neil Fairbrother are likely to be fit to play having rested their respective hamstring injuries and, although England are insistent that the policy remains of picking from the whole squad, their presence is important to balance, power and psyche. Tiredness and, therefore, paradoxically, stamina, may be a factor.

The weather may mean the use of the reserve day in Sydney on Thursday. It would still be a day-night contest finishing after 10pm and the players would then have to fly to Melbourne immediately for the second final on Friday. It could be trench warfare. England, knowing they are about to go home, should feel at home. They probably must win in Sydney to take the series, but they will not be jackbooted aside.