Cricket: England to carry on in sober fashion

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The Independent Online
THIS IS some one-day series. It began with a controversy which refuses to go away about a bowler having a crooked arm. Now, there is a scandal which will probably have similar mileage about a batsman being legless.

The first involves the Sri Lankan bowler, Muttiah Muralitharan, who continues to be the subject of blatant innuendo about his bowling action. It is still being widely suggested that he may be called for throwing by one or other of the umpires in his side's match against England in Adelaide tomorrow.

But at least some of the heat has been taken out of the Murali debate by the dropping from the Australian team of the batsman, Ricky Ponting, after he was struck in the eye while on an early-morning drinking session. Ponting, who is sporting a bonny shiner after the incident in a Sydney bar, made every Australian front page after the incident became public and is waiting to hear if he is to receive further punishment from the Australian Cricket Board.

He has admitted that he has a tendency to drink too much occasionally and fierce arguments are now being mounted about whether players should be banned from imbibing alcohol before and after games. This might be a tad embarrassing since the tournament sponsors, Carlton & United, are brewers. It is not known if Ponting had been sampling their wares on the night in question.

Squeaky clean England, and everywhere you go this squad's politeness and good manners are mentioned, meanwhile, keep on winning matches. If they defeat Sri Lanka tomorrow they will have won five from six. The only way they could then fail to qualify for the finals is if they lose the rest while Australia and Sri Lanka also contrive to win five matches (possible but not likely) and lose out on net run-rate.

Their captain, Alec Stewart, is the archetypal pro and was taking nothing for granted while counting no chickens. "I would say we have broken the back of it, playing our first five games in 10 days. We have now got down to two or three days between each game."

England have arrived at a strategy which gives them their best chance of winning matches in Australia. It seems to have been achieved partly by design, partly by accident - Graeme Hick asked to bat at No 3 while the selectors were just about to request him to do it - and mainly embraces the revolutionary concept in one-day games of playing orthodox cricket.

True, the openers will try to take advantage of the fielding restrictions which apply in the first 15 overs, but they are conscious, too, of the importance of not losing wickets then, a trait which has had a debilitating effect on Sri Lanka. England are attempting to stack up singles and twos in the middle part of the innings and then have enough wickets left for a big bash at the end.

It will not work perfectly every time but it is a sensible policy. They may decide that something different should apply on the spring pitches of England in the World Cup but the present balance between bat and ball seems somehow more appropriate.

Sri Lanka's win over Australia in Hobart has opened up the group slightly but England have still gone from the least fancied side to favourites. Tiredness may be their greatest enemy. Neither Stewart not Darren Gough would lightly miss an England game but they have been in Australia since October and whatever the sparkling images of fitness and enthusiasm they both convey they must be feeling tired. Resting Gough at least for a match or two before the finals must be an option.

First, they have to qualify. In addition to which the tour manager, David Graveney, offered wise words of caution. "These are all one-day internationals after all and there is a case for always picking what you think is the best side for every match. And there is the importance of not letting a winning sequence slip."

England have fallen into the habit of not naming their side until shortly before the match in this tournament, making much of the point that they are picking from 16. But the likelihood for the first match here is that Neil Fairbrother will return if his tight hamstring has mended and that Dean Headley could return.

John Crawley, who batted neatly to help win the last match against Sri Lanka, and Vince Wells, who, sadly, barely managed to get into the game, will probably stand down. Sri Lanka will have received an immense, not to say much-needed boost to their confidence after their three-wicket victory over Australia.

They should be more like their old selves despite the pressure on Murali and the probable continued absence of Aravinda de Silva. These are contentious times and it is at least welcome that the triangular tournament involves three teams again.

England A's scheduled four-day match against Mashonaland was abandoned without play yesterday because of the water-logged state of the Old Hararians ground. Two replacement one-day matches have been planned.