Cricket: England at sea in the desert

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FOR ANYONE who may have forgotten what England's World Cup squad were trying to achieve here, other than successfully audition for parts in Priscilla Queen of the Desert II, the official answer was to "get on a winning streak". Apparently that hasn't changed, despite losing their first two games with performances that can only be described as amateur. As Alec Stewart's team are professional, the lapses should be a cause for great concern.

With the World Cup on home soil in just over a month's time, a disturbing pattern of stale play and sapped confidence, reminiscent of their appalling showing in the last World Cup, is once more emerging. Then, as now, key players were out of form, and there was little vigour or panache in terms of approach. There was also displeasure at the Draconian management of Ray Illingworth, an unnecessary distraction that has resurfaced this time in the form of a row over contracts.

Removing half their toes with their own shotgun has become a speciality for England teams and David Graveney, England's team manager here, admits the contract situation has become a hindrance.

"It's been a distraction and coupled with losing, it hasn't made for a happy atmosphere," he said. Graveney had been hoping for the players at least to see their contracts yesterday. Unfortunately they have not arrived and they will now be given them to peruse on Tuesday, though judging by the recent efficiency of the England and Wales Cricket Board, and the present form of the England side, a situation could yet arise whereby the contracts arrive but the team could be jetting back home to take an early bath.

England's problems, though, run far deeper than a few squabbles over money. Of greatest concern, as is stressed by both Graveney and the team coach David Lloyd, is the failure when batting to take advantage of the fielding restrictions in operation for the first 15 overs.

Where other sides plunder anything between 65 and 100 runs during this period, England have rarely got above the 50 mark, which leaves the lower order, coming in cold, with too much to do. Friday's game against India was a prime example, when, despite a feisty stand of 72 between Neil Fairbrother and Andrew Flintoff in the third quarter of the innings, the required run rate simply kept on climbing.

The main reason England haven't been able to capitalise at the start has been the continuing failure of the opening partnership of Stewart and Nick Knight. Beginning with the one-day series in Australia last January, the pair's average partnership has been 25.6 from 14 one-day matches, with 50 or more added just four times.

Stewart, with a top score of 39, has experienced a particularly lean trot, a record that once more questions the wisdom of him shouldering the triple role of keeping, opening and captaining. Mind you, the heat, relentless and sapping in Sharjah and Australia, will surely not be as fierce on the fields of England during May and early June. While Knight must get back to the positive striking which has brought him a one-day average of over 40, Stewart must get his feet moving. If they can gel together, England's batting will surely prosper.

At the moment both look low on confidence, and England will probably look to include Vince Wells in the top three for their remaining games, beginning today against India. The plan, which consists of using Wells as a striker so that Hick, Thorpe and Fairbrother can bat at their own pace over the last 30 overs of the innings, has to be tried. Another loss would both consign them to an early flight home and also deal another substantial blow to morale.

While losing streaks test even the most phlegmatic of cricketers, England's will be consoling themselves that their performances will be restored by home conditions. If that may appear delusional, the evidence tends to back it up - since 1991, England have won 22 of their 31 home one-day internationals.

Mind you, although the conditions here may not suit England's bowlers or even faintly resemble those expected during the forthcoming World Cup, that is no excuse for the batsmen, who have played as if expecting a fate worse than having to attend a meeting of the First Class Forum.

Fortunately there have been a few positives, and the spirited batting and fielding of Flintoff have been highlights of what, for England, has so far proved to be a depressing interlude in the desert.

In fact, if evidence were needed that losing affects morale, one need look no further than the young Lancashire all-rounder. While most of the England squad arrived here conscious of the defeats in Australia, Flintoff arrived from a successful A tour of Zimbabwe and South Africa.

It has showed, too, and his outlook has been refreshingly free of the foreboding that has afflicted most of his team-mates. The trick now is to let that rub off on them rather than losing it himself.