OVER THE past few days, what with a punitive fine for Graham Thorpe and the promise of a bonus from Vodafone, England's players have been subjected to both stick and carrot forms of motivation. Sadly, although his team won, neither appears to have worked for their struggling captain, Alec Stewart, and, while his Surrey team-mate Graham Thorpe scored a pleasing half-century, his captain spent just 14 balls at the crease before being run out for four.
Stewart's poor form, compounded by a lack of cricket, is the most worrying aspect of England's preparation for the World Cup. To make things worse, more than one of the 12 captains has already pointed to the opening partnership as the most significant in English conditions, and where the destiny of most games will be shaped.
Stewart, however, insisted, there is no cause for alarm. "It's all down to rhythm and when you haven't got it you're worrying about doing this and that instead of concentrating on hitting the ball. There is still room for improvement but it's gradually getting back to how I'd like it to be."
At present, England's openers can barely register a sit, let alone a stand, and yesterday, against Kent, just 16 runs had been made before Nick Knight, pushing impatiently at Dean Headley, edged to the keeper. Stewart is only one half of that problem, though as captain and wicket- keeper he has less time to spend on correcting it.
It has often been said of Nasser Hussain that he is more dangerous to his team mates when batting than he is to his opponents. Certainly he seems to be involved in more run-outs than most, and he was again in the vicinity when Stewart was caught well short of his ground, trying to run an overthrow.
For once Hussain appeared to be blameless, and the England captain seemed to be undone by his own hesitation as much as Mark Ealham's clever throw from mid-on while simultaneously sliding on his backside.
For his part, Hussain, playing in place of Graeme Hick, who will play against Essex and Hampshire, struck the ball sweetly. He is not the expert fiddler and exploiter of gaps that Thorpe and Neil Fairbrother are, but he has a broad range of shots. His fielding is generally top class though, and the salmon leap to catch Ed Smith at backward point, is unlikely to be bettered by Jonty Rhodes or Ricky Ponting.
Hussain's dismissal, squared-up by a beauty from Matthew Fleming that hit him on the back pad, typically set the scene for Thorpe and Fairbrother, who added 81 for the fourth wicket. While it must be heartening that these two left-handers are continuing their good form from Sharjah, it must be disturbing to England's selectors that no one else seems to have joined them.
With rain reducing the match to 38 overs a side, neither Flintoff nor Adam Hollioake had many overs to play with, as Fairbrother's unbeaten 50, brought up in style with a six, saw England to 197.
For reasons best known to Messrs Duckworth and Lewis, Kent actually required 196. The fact that England were 41-2 when the rain arrived meant that the break was felt to favour them rather than Kent.
On a pitch that always offered the bowlers something, England struck quickly as Darren Gough caught Trevor Ward lbw. Smith, Robert Key and Matthew Walker all followed to leave the hosts on 65 for 4.
Andrew Symonds, Kent's Australian overseas player and a man not far from World Cup selection himself, had other ideas, and, together with Mark Ealham, who was playing for county rather than country, he fashioned a response. With 80 needed off the last 10 overs, Ealham was run out for 26.
After a huge six off Flintoff to bring up his 50, Symonds fell to a sliced catch at third man. Matthew Fleming continued the thrash but he, too, fell to a fine catch by Flintoff. By now, England were into the tail, which obligingly allowed itself to be picked off by Gough and Austin.
Scoreboard, page 24