Cricket: England must counter early barrage

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reports from Karachi

If you had asked Michael Atherton before the start of this World Cup which of the Test-playing nations he would prefer to meet in the quarter- finals, his answer, without question, would have been Sri Lanka. Ask him that question today, and it would probably be anyone but.

They say you have to beat all the best sides if you want to win the cup, but so far Sri Lanka have not so much beaten opponents as marmalised them, rewriting the record books as they smite their way towards Faisalabad and tomorrow's match against England.

In the space of two weeks, Arjuna Ranatunga's team have become the most feared batting side in the tournament, swatting away fancied India as if it were a pesky mosquito, and generally treating opening bowlers with savage disregard.

Poor old England. Even when their skipper's pre-tour wishes are granted, they seem to have a habit of backfiring on them for, not only do they come up against the form side of the tournament, they may have to do without Dominic Cork, the one England bowler capable of taking vital early wickets with the new ball.

Cork, whose chances are rated by Ray Illingworth as no more than "50- 50," is still having treatment on his troublesome knee and will undertake two bowling sessions today, in a bid to assess his fitness.

If Cork does not play, a three seamer attack plus two front-line spinners is the most likely option, though having Dermot Reeve as one of the three seamers may be a risk Atherton will not take, and it may be down to Graeme Hick to fulfil one of the spinning roles to accommodate him.

"It is vital we get it right against these boys in the first eight to 10 overs, so he has to be guaranteed 100 per cent fit," said Illingworth, sitting by the team hotel's pool in Karachi before yesterday's flight to Faisalabad - clearly overlooking the fact that Cork has not been all that fit since the recent tour of South Africa.

Illingworth is right, though. Sri Lanka's early-order dashers, the left- hander Sanath Jayasuriya and right-handed Romesh Kaluwitharana, have been crucial to their electric starts, posting scores well over a hundred from the first 15 overs.

However, if the frenetic hitting poses a problem, another stems from the large amount of left-handers - four of the top six - and, in particular, the extra room bowlers seem to give them outside the off-stump. Room that allows them to gain leverage and a full swing of the bat, two components crucial to successful pinch hitting.

The ways of countering this kind of onslaught are largely unproven. Either you gamble and try and take wickets by attacking, or you bowl negatively (leg-stump yorkers) to a well thought-out field.

Either way you need to be flexible, a point also stressed by Illingworth. "There is no doubt we've got to bowl very straight," he said. "We may even bowl an off-spinner in the first 15 overs. But if it doesn't go just right, we've got to be flexible enough to change and the bowlers will have to be ready to bowl at a moment's notice." It could even be Phil DeFreitas who will be asked to send down some turners - apparently he has bowled off-spin in the nets and even occasionally for Derbyshire.

Clearly, with maybe no one to call upon to give England a breakthrough with the ball, someone will have to come off with the bat. "One-day cricket," Illingworth claims, "is all about your star performers playing well on the day. If Lara or Tendulkar get a hundred, their team wins. If Hick gets one for us, we'll hopefully win too."

Yet in spite of the daunting form book, England have reason to take heart. For one thing Sri Lanka do not have any match-winning bowlers, and the winners-take-all situation of the knock-out stage may well niggle away at the bravado of their batsmen After all, they have had two walkover victories to help boost their modus operandi.

There is no doubt that, by treating the start of an innings like most sides used to bat at the "death", Sri Lanka have turned the conventions of one-day cricket on its head. Tomorrow, just for the day, it is up to England to stand upright again.

Battle of peacocks, page 26