Cricket: England find winning habit

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The Independent Online
THE ENGLAND players were last together at Edgbaston as an entity at the start of June for the first Test match against South Africa. That now seems an impossibly long time ago and in the intervening weeks, England's cricket has been through the full gamut of emotions.

In early June, England were still smarting after losing a series they should have won in the West Indies; they had a new captain and were now playing opponents who were long on dedication and shorter on flair. They also have a good recent record against England.

The key to a first match that, in an uncomfortably short time, was made to seem an illusion, was some dreadful bowling by Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock. Their normal control completely disappeared and Mike Atherton and Mark Butcher who, as it happened, were not illusory, added 177 for England's first wicket. If it had not rained on the last day, England might just have won even though they were too diffident after a brilliant opening day.

Alec Stewart - who had suggested that he might, at best, be a boring, bureaucratic captain - threw down a challenge at the end, but, alas, the elements spoiled it. Then, in quick succession, England collapsed twice at Lord's - the second innings was a collapse to savour and tell the grandchildren about - and lost by a distance.

Collapsing can be habit-forming as we saw at Old Trafford until, on the last day and at the last gasp, an unusual act of heroism by Robert Croft and Angus Fraser - who should have been given a medal for keeping out Donald's last 13 balls of the match - brought England a draw. Wins for England followed at Trent Bridge and Headingley, albeit distorted by some dreadful umpiring.

Now, in the second of those preliminary one-day internationals in the Emirates Triangular, England qualified for tomorrow's final at a canter. South Africa, in their last game of the tour, were sent packing though they actually managed to win the game. If South Africa could have won much more handsomely they might conceivably have qualified for the final and Donald will argue forever that Stewart should have been given out second ball for nought; he has a point.

Stewart has strode through this summer like a colossus. He has injected a wonderful spirit into his side, he has batted magnificently and his wicketkeeping has hardly erred. He has, less happily, also wagged his fingers at the umpires a time or two.

He tells his players what he expects from them and his ebullient spirit has lifted England to an extraordinary extent. The cast that won the Test series were not all present for the one-day matches. Atherton and Butcher have not been able to get a game so far, Fraser is expendable and Adam Hollioake, Ian Austin, Peter Martin and Alistair Brown have all pushed their ways in.

Horses for courses and it has worked. But what has worked the most is the confidence that has come flowing with success. Now, England not only know what it is like to win, they actually expect to win and you can see it, sense it, feel it and enjoy it.

The players may not all be the same but the spirit is the same. It is irresistible and England will go to Australia in October believing they can win. And who is to say that is not at least half the battle. That is what Alec Stewart has done for England.