IT HAS so far eluded every other cricket-playing nation as a master plan, but that should hardly bother England. Their singular strategy of packing their one-day side with batsmen who were born long before the birth of one-day international cricket in 1971 appears to be working.
In Brisbane yesterday the side who started the triangular series as third favourites ensured their presence as the early leaders in the qualifying competition. Neither Australia nor Sri Lanka have yet won a game. Played two, won two with eight to play is a long way from turning the tables but you can detect the cloth being ruffled.
The win over Sri Lanka was another close affair. England might have won at a canter but then presumably realised who they were and made life difficult for themselves. The wily old pro who secured the victory was Neil Fairbrother, top scorer for the second consecutive match.
His 67 came from 105 balls but its intelligence and quality was reflected in one shot. As the match approached its climax England were in desperate danger of failing to reach their target of 208. Arjuna Ranatunga had once again demonstrated precisely why he is known as the General, little Napoleon, Captain Cool. Take your pick.
He manoeuvred his close field constantly, kept a vigilant eye on his boundary sweepers and changed his bowlers with cunning. Never were the batsmen allowed to settle against a familiar pace and direction for any length of time. The England batsmen played Muttiah Muralitharan for his devious off-spin with all the aptitude shown by their Test colleagues back at The Oval in August, when the Sri Lankan took 16 wickets. That is to say, they were hopeless.
There were 14 balls left, Murali was finished but England were still 16 short. It needed a boundary and quickly, but Fairbrother had hit only one in his whole innings. At that point he decided to act. He took a little shuffle down the pitch and made perfect contact with Sanath Jayasuriya's left-arm spin. It went straight and it went for six.
The fuddy-duddies will have it that the one-day game lacks tactics and finesse, but that was a beautifully controlled piece of cricket which came when it was most needed. England were all but home as a result and Robert Croft, who thrives on these positions, quickly slogged them there by four wickets with three balls left.
Fairbrother's international career looked finished after the World Cup in 1995. Like almost every other England player there, he had a dreadful time and his services were swiftly dispensed with. For almost three years since then he has struggled with injuries to most parts of his lower body: knee, calves and hamstrings to name but three.
But he had been one of the best of all limited-overs batsmen (he averages 37 in one-day internationals) and gradually the selectors began to take another look, deterred not at all by his 35 years. Two years and eight months since his last England game he played in Bangladesh last October and made 56. He still steals singles with the stealth of a pickpocket and, in the likely absence of Graham Thorpe, he seems a shoo-in for the World Cup squad.
Sri Lanka made it close thanks to Ranatunga, but on a pitch which had eased considerably from the mischievous affair of the previous day, they knew they ought to have made more runs. After losing Jayasuriya to the third ball of the day, when he failed to judge the pace of the pitch and was caught at slip, they recovered well for a time.
Both Marvan Atapattu, who had scored a lovely hundred against England in the Emirates Final last summer, and Romesh Kaluwitharana, made fifties. Atapattu's was cultured, while Kaluwitharana's was primitive by comparison, but both ended too quickly. The most effective member of the England attack was Adam Hollioake. He was lively, he found some movement and he used the slower ball wisely. This, too, is a comeback of sorts. Last year Hollioake was so out of sorts with his bowling that he became a liability. The slow ball became his stock ball.
England set off in pursuit of their second win in as many days with a freedom of expression and a sense of purpose which suggested this one- day team means business. The Ashes squad said they did but never confirmed it till too late. Nick Knight and Alec Stewart were beginning to strut their singles at will when they became too cocky. Stewart called for a needless run which he went for half-heartedly, only to be run out by Muralitharan's direct throw.
It was not, naturally, Murali's only contribution. He is a player at the top of his game and he caused England immense embarrassment. He bowled Hollioake through a gate which would have been wide enough to double as the entrance to the city of Rome and thoroughly bamboozled poor Mark Alleyne.
Having been preferred to Vince Wells, with Dean Headley coming into England's side, Alleyne was distinctly apprehensive. It seemed he had survived Murali when he was beaten by the spin off the last ball of the spell. Kaluwitharana, skipping to leg, whipped off the bails. Alleyne looked to have regained his ground. The third umpire disagreed. Contentious third umpiring decisions are occurring often enough now for the International Cricket Council soon to consider having an arbitration panels at international matches.
Had Sri Lanka possessed another spinner they might have won. Their manager, Ranjit Fernando, said the tail was not making enough runs, which was a familiar tale to English ears.
Fairbrother was the key. The General, his captain described him as, though Ranatunga may yet have something to say about that.
Sri Lanka won toss
S T Jayasuriya c Hick b Gough 1
(3 min, 2 balls)
R S Kaluwitharana c Headley b Croft 58
(95 min, 61 balls, 5 fours)
M S Atapattu b Hollioake 51
(121 min, 90 balls, 2 fours)
*A Ranatunga c and b Hollioake 0
(5 min, 2 balls)
H P Tillakaratne not out 50
(107 min, 86 balls, 2 fours)
R S Mahanama c Knight b Hollioake 2
(13 min, 6 balls)
U D U Chandana c Fairbrother b Ealham 23
(46 min, 32 balls, 1 four)
W P U J C Vaas b Mullally 5
(17 min, 16 balls)
G P Wickramasinghe not out 7
(4 min, 5 balls, 1 four)
Extras (b1, lb3, w6) 10
Total (for 7, 210 min, 50 overs) 207
Fall: 1-2 (Jayasuriya); 2-99 (Kaluwitharana); 3-102 (Ranatunga); 4-128 (Atapattu); 5-139 (Mahanama); 6-185 (Chandana); 7-200 (Vaas).
Did not bat: M Muralitharan; D N T Zoysa.
Bowling: Gough 9-0-37-1 (w2) (5-0-24-1, 2-0-8-0, 2-0-5-0); Mullally 10- 2-35-1 (w1) (6-1-19-0, 4-1-16-1); Headley 5-1-22-0 (one spell); Ealham 6-0-33-1 (3-0-19-0, 3-0-14-1); Croft 10-0-44-1 (w1) (8-0-34-1, 2-0-10- 0); Hollioake 10-0-32-3 (w2) (one spell).
Progress: 50: 52 min, 76 balls; 100: 97 min, 131 balls; 150: 154 min, 216 balls; 200: 203 min, 293 balls. 15 overs score: 63-1.
Kaluwitharana 50: 80 min, 51 balls, 5 fours.
Atapattu 50: 119 min, 85 balls, 2 fours. Tillakaratne 50: 99 min, 85 balls, 2 fours.
N V Knight st Kaluwitharana b Chandana (TV Replay) 40
(83 min, 54 balls, 2 fours)
*A J Stewart run out (Muralitharan) 24
(54 min, 36 balls, 3 fours)
G A Hick c Kaluwitharana
b Muralitharan (TV Replay) 37
(67 min, 42 balls, 2 fours, 1 six)
N H Fairbrother not out 67
(127 min, 105 balls, 1 four, 1 six)
A J Hollioake b Muralitharan 1
(5 min, 5 balls)
M W Alleyne st Kaluwitharana
b Muralitharan (TV replay) 18
(65 min, 50 balls)
M A Ealham lbw b Tillakaratne 1
(4 min, 2 balls)
R D B Croft not out 10
(11 min, 9 balls)
Extras (lb3,w1,nb6) 10
Total (for 6, 211 min, 49.3 overs) 208
Fall: 1-59 (Stewart); 2-87 (Knight); 3-128 (Hick); 4-130 (Hollioake); 5-187 (Alleyne); 6-190 (Ealham).
Did not bat: D Gough, D W Headley, A D Mullally.
Bowling: Vaas 7.3-0-40-0 (nb2) (5-0-25-0, 2-0-10-0, 0.3-0-5-0); Zoysa 6-0-31-0 (3-0-20-0, 3-0-11-0); Wickramasinghe 4-0-16-0 (one spell); Muralitharan 10-0-34-3 (nb3) (4- 0-18-0, 3-0-8-2, 3-0-8-1); Chandana 10-1-41-1 (nb1, w1) (4-0-19-1, 4-1- 12-0, 2-0-10-0), Jayasuriya 10-1-35-0 (9-1-27-0, 1-0-8-0); Tillakaratne 2-0-8-1 (one spell).
Progress: 50: 40 min, 57 balls. 100: 95 min, 130 balls; 150: 160 min, 230 balls; 200: 206 min, 298 balls. 15 overs score: 72-1.
Fairbrother 50: 102 min, 86 balls, 1 four.
Man of the match: N H Fairbrother.
Umpires: S J Davis and P D Parker.
Compiled by Jo KingReuse content