Cricket: England in different world

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The Independent Online
THE LAST TIME England visited Sharjah they came back with a trophy and the belief that they had a side capable of winning the World Cup. It would be more pertinent if they returned with precisely the same booty on this occasion.

The triumph in the third largest of the United Arab Emirates in late 1997 has been followed by a sequence of failures. Since England won all four of their matches in the Champions' Trophy they have played 23 more one-day internationals, winning only eight (and none of the four competitions involved). That is a ratio of 34 per cent, well below the 53 per cent mark that England have attained since the limited-overs game began.

Rarely can anybody have gone to the desert searching for the sustenance England crave from their latest venture, the Coca-Cola Cup. It is another triangular tournament, which begins with a match against Pakistan on Wednesday and continues against India on Friday. The sides will play each other once more before a one-match final on 16 April.

Now, pitches in Sharjah in April, or indeed at any time of the year, can bear no resemblance to those in England in May and June. Superficially, therefore, if England find form in keeping the pace off the ball and finding the gaps in the field in the next fortnight it would have minimal relevance to the World Cup.

But coming so close to it, it would replenish their faith. Whatever their public pronouncements, that must have been severely tested in the past 15 months, not least by the manner in which they finished the recent series in Australia. Losing, or at least being eliminated before the final, would not necessarily mean that England would fail to become the first host nation to win the World Cup two months later, but it would be impossible to justify their position as third favourites.

Alec Stewart, the captain, said: "This is another competition and our aim is to win it, as with everything else." Professional pragmatism, naturally, but Stewart knows it is important for other reasons. He and the other men who will pick the team from the 15, the manager David Graveney and coach David Lloyd, must decide if they are choosing a team to win in Sharjah or one to do better in England a few weeks later. Triumph in one and it might inject the purpose to do so in the other.

The balance of the squad has been altered by the choice of Nasser Hussain in place of the injured Michael Atherton. Hussain has been picked because, like Atherton, he remains essentially an orthodox batsman in a one-day framework. There, however, the comparison ends.

The selectors initially opted for Atherton because they backed his ability against the swinging, white new ball on contrary English spring pitches. If Hussain is in against the swinging, white new ball, then England are in deep trouble. In any case, depending on what happens in Sharjah he is presumably not pencilled in for the starting eleven. The prime middle- order places are obviously decided in selectorial minds: Graeme Hick, Thorpe and Neil Fairbrother, each with a different role. If Hussain takes one of those slots it may mean the strategy isn't working, though that may be no bad thing.

The call for Hussain, deserved as it surely was, has been overtaken by what is either the most heartening, or possibly the most disturbing news to emerge from Lahore on the first part of England's final preparatory trip. Andrew Flintoff, the wonderfully exciting, aspirant all-rounder, who is surely on the threshold of genuine achievement, scored 112 from only 67 deliveries in England's opening warm-up match. Flintoff has yet to appear in a one-day international, but that innings could be called putting down a marker.

Unfortunately, it was against England's bowlers, for the huge man known as Freddie had been loaned to the opposition team, Lahore Gymkhana. Since the World Cup is likely to be determined to a huge degree by seam bowling and since there are other batsmen quite as destructive and purposeful lying in wait, it might be assumed that there is room for England's bowlers to improve. Whatever happens in Sharjah they are presumably staking it all on doing it on familiar territory.

There is another important reason, as Stewart has made clear, for making this trip. It will give England knowledge of the Indian and Pakistani teams, somewhat changed since last they were encountered. Little seems to be given to their World Cup chances so early in the English summer but they are adept and experienced one-day teams.

India have doubts over Sachin Tendulkar for the Coca-Cola Cup. He is another one with a bad back, but it is unthinkable that he will miss the World Cup. If nothing else, the coming fortnight will allow England to assess the improved one-day strengths of the likes of Saurav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid. They will be encountering several of the Pakistani players for the first time and word has it that this crop, led by the familiar Wasim Akram, can be a potent force again. They have the ability, in addition, to stop arguing among themselves when it matters, usually when playing England.

The next three weeks will be important for English morale, that of the supporters if not the players, for it helps if the former have faith, too. Not that all eyes will be on Sharjah this week.

This coming Thursday, the earliest date ever, the English first-class season begins. Who can possibly be too affected by international events in the desert when there is Cambridge University against Lancashire at Fenner's and Oxford University against Worcestershire at The Parks to consider?