Cricket: England face confident underdogs

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The Independent Online
IF PAST results were a reliable indicator of things to come England might just as well stay in bed as turn up to Trent Bridge this morning.

Since the 1992 World Cup, when Zimbabwe beat England in Albury, Test cricket's new boys have won four of the last five encounters, a percentage high enough to be considered a banker.

It is, in the argot of the analyst, almost a monopoly and one Alec Stewart's men must stop if they are to minimise the risk of not qualifying for the next stage of the tournament. Zimbabwe also need to win, for much the same reasons, though with a final group game against South Africa their need is perhaps more pressing.

Zimbabwe also want to prove beyond doubt that they are a force to be reckoned with, rather than the motley assortment of chicken farmers and game hunters they have often been billed as in the past.

"People can call us what they want," said Zimbabwe's captain, Alistair Campbell, after nets yesterday. "We've tried to get better and better, and our form over the last year shows that we're getting better and better. We're not just here making up the numbers."

Campbell, who accused England of having a superiority complex when they toured Zimbabwe in 1996/97, is clear over his team's priorities. "We want to make the Super Sixes and create history for Zimbabwe cricket."

"I felt we'd qualify, even before we arrived," said Dave Houghton, Zimbabwe's chief coach and a stalwart of the 1992 side. "To be honest, the underdog label infuriates us. In the last year we have won Tests in both India and Pakistan, as well as getting to the one-day finals in Sharjah. Just how much do we have to do to get recognition that we are a decent side."

If Houghton did not quite stretch to a "We flippin murdered 'em," he is confident Zimbabwe will win, and therefore most likely take two valuable points into the Super Sixes with them. "There is no shortage of confidence amongst the side and it won't be the longest team talk. England don't fill us with fear," he said, with more than a hint of provocation.

Henry Olonga, Zimbabwe's opera-singing fast bowler and the last-minute architect of their thrilling win over India, was even more forthright in his assessment of today's opponents. "England panic in a way other teams don't," reckoned Olonga. "There is a lot of pressure on their top order to make runs."

For their part, England have never played Zimbabwe in the northern hemisphere and should not be too overawed by their underdog status. The heavy loss to South Africa will have doused some of the spirit, but before that England had been playing efficient cricket.

"We simply offered nothing with the bat, but that does not mean we are not about to panic," said Stewart, about England's defeat on Saturday. "We know it's another big game and that we must improve on Saturday's performance and beat Zimbabwe."

Stewart will not want for motivation. As an England regular over the years he has been involved in all five losses to Zimbabwe while missing out on the win. If those games are still thorns in the flesh for the England captain, he and his team still spent a lengthy session studying videos of today's opponents.

The pitch, while firm and well-grassed is tinged with green. But while the promise of a close cut this morning may delay the temptation to bowl first by all of a nanosecond, the winner is likely to be the side who limits the damage in the first 20 overs.

So far, the two sides dominating the tournament have been South Africa and Pakistan. Not surprisingly, both possess top-class bowling attacks as well as powers of recovery down the batting order.

Providing England stick with Angus Fraser they in theory strengthen the first point, but weaken the second. Should Ian Austin return the reverse is true. Which is why Adam Hollioake, a half-way house between the two, may get a recall. All three will play should Alan Mullally not have recovered from the stiff neck the fast bowler picked up against South Africa.

With Graeme Hick now fit to bowl against his country of birth, Robert Croft, whose off-spin provided just two overs at The Oval will almost certainly be dropped. However, with the bowling doing its job it is England's batting that needs to find its bearings after being brutally uprooted by South Africa's pacemen.

During the warm-up period Zimbabwe lost to Derbyshire and Warwickshire. Since then their cricket has showed signs of coming together.

Should it peak now England will find their route to the next stage far from pot-hole free.

ENGLAND (v Zimbabwe, Trent Bridge, 10.45; from): A J Stewart (Surrey, capt, wkt), N Hussain (Essex), G A Hick (Worcestershire), G P Thorpe (Surrey), N H Fairbrother (Lancashire), A Flintoff (Lancashire), M A Ealham (Kent), A J Hollioake (Surrey), I D Austin (Lancashire), R D B Croft (Glamorgan), D Gough (Yorkshire), A D Mullally (Leicestershire), A R C Fraser (Middlesex).

ZIMBABWE (from): A D R Campbell (capt), A Flower (wkt), G W Flower, N C Johnson, M W Goodwin, S V Carlisle, H K Olonga, H H Streak, E A Brandes, P A Strang, A R Whittall, G J Whittall.

Umpires: D B Hair (Aus) and S A Bucknor (WI).

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