Cricket: England are found wanting once more

India 239-6 England 230 India win by nine runs
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ENGLAND WERE condemned to taking an early flight home after losing their third match of the Coca-Cola Cup here. Set 239 to win, they lost by nine runs with eight balls remaining in a tense match. In a match that saw fortunes see-saw in the closing overs, the result renders today's game against Pakistan meaningless.

The early exit should at least allow the squad time to study the fine print in their World Cup contracts, now arrived courtesy of the England Cricket Board's chief executive Tim Lamb. They have until 26 April to sign them.

According to Lamb, the offer - approximately pounds 18,000 if they exit before the Super Sixes and 60,000 should they win it - is not negotiable, and those not signing, under the ICC rules of the competition, will rule themselves unavailable and will be replaced.

Under normal circumstances this high-handedness might have upset the players, whose original gripe was for more performance related bonuses. Mind you on the evidence here, they would do well not to push their grievances too hard.

Their cricket, particularly their ability to chase two fairly modest totals, has been found wanting and they return home with much individual soul searching, as well as collective thinking to do.

Alec Stewart, desperately short of form, failed again, this time lbw to Javagal Srinath for two. When you are struggling for runs little seems to go your way and the ball would have comfortably cleared the top of the stumps.

Mindful that they were not taking advantage of the fielding restrictions during the first 15 overs, England brought in Vince Wells at No 3. After three balls it looked a stroke of genius as Wells lofted Venkatesh Prasad back over his head for six. After four, it was back to the drawing board and Wells, deceived by Prasad's slower ball, tamely poked a catch back to the bowler.

With Mark Ealham similarly promoted and just as ineffectual following a mix up with Nick Knight, it was left to the Warwickshire vice-captain to take control. Hitting is what Knight does best and a brace of boundaries from Srinath's fifth over, reminded him of what the middle of the bat felt like.

After Hick's departure for a single, it seemed he couldn't stop himself and he'd thrashed four sixes and six fours by the time he was fifth out for 84, following a bottom-edge on to his stumps as he attempted to pull Kumble.

With Andrew Flintoff run out for three in the 31st over, England found themselves 131 for 6. A half-century partnership between Graham Thorpe and Neil Fairbrother threatened to take them home, but once Fairbrother and Ian Austin departed, both bowled by the unwavering Prasad, Thorpe was left to fight a lone cause.

This he did valiantly until stumped for 79 off Sunil Joshi in the 47th over.

Darren Gough struck a mighty six off Srinath to encourage fresh hope but a mix-up with last-man Angus Fraser left both batsmen at the same end. It was typical of England's performance in this competition.

England made two changes from their previous game against India with Fraser replacing the injured Alan Mullally (strained intercostal) and Wells replacing Robert Croft.

The latter may seem a curious swap considering spin played such a big part in England's demise the other day. Yet Croft has been so ineffectual with either bat or ball in this tournament, that it was impossible not to draw the attentions of the selectorial axe. And when he failed to volunteer for an optional net on Saturday, down it came.

India, without their captain Mohammed Azharuddin, who was missing with a badly bruised toe, began as turgidly as they had done the other day, though some credit must go to Fraser. His opening spell of 8-2-15-1 was characteristically stingy and would have been far more decisive had his colleagues been anywhere near as accurate.

Acting captain Ajay Jadeja scored the bulk of India's runs. His unbeaten 74 came from 67 balls as England's bowlers were subjected to a wristy flurry of sliced drives and slashes at the death. Earlier, Rahul Dravid, playing with a much straighter blade, made 63 before being run out from extra cover by a direct hit from Fairbrother.

The performance in the field was mixed one. Hick and Fairbrother both took brilliant catches, the former necessitating an about turn and a 30-yard sprint before his outstretched arms managed to cling on to Kambli's steepling drive.

The bowling however, was a mixed bag and Ian Austin, perhaps feeling the effects of demolishing an advertising board while fielding, was much shorter than his metronomic optimum for Lancashire and his seven overs were exorbitant by his usual standards.

Like England, India changed the batting order around and Srinath, promoted to No 5, made a rapid 28 and India ended with 17 runs more than they had the other night. In the event, it was a crucial contribution.