Cricket: Hollioake's day-dream believers

Stephen Brenkley hears that England's spirit will stay willing when others might wilt
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TEAM huddles, smiles in adversity and general joie de vivre while still refusing to cede the opposition an unearned inch are not necessarily attributes automatically associated with England's cricket team. But there they have been in the West Indies this past week, oozing camaraderie and spirit, an unlikely combination of Roundhead doggedness and Cavalier style.

These are still formative days in the era of Team Hollioake and there remains a one-day series in the Caribbean to be won without entertaining loose talk of a meaningful team for the World Cup, a squad fit for heroes - as yesterday's game in St Vincent vividly demonstrated. The signs, however, are unmistakeable. If not a side quite transformed from that which lost the Test series 3-1 they seem to be clearly at ease with themselves.

"We've been together for seven or eight games now and there's no doubt we believe in each other," said Nick Knight, batting hero of the first two games in Barbados. "We won the Champions' Trophy in Sharjah and came out on top in some tremendously close games. That helps to give you confidence, which is a quality never to be underrated. It's the right blend of people."

Knight, who was twice man of the match last week with resounding innings of 122 and 90, emphasised the team's unflappability. The captain, Adam Hollioake, was resolutely cool and flexible under pressure which pervaded the whole team. "At the start of the opposition innings there are going to be times when they get after you and there's nothing you can do about it as perfectly respectable deliveries get smacked to the boundary. That's the time to stay calm, knowing that if it's 120 after 15 you can still claw it back.

"It's so important to chase everything in the field and keep chasing it. Over 50 overs a huge amount of runs can be stopped. The fielders are in the right places and the fielding's confident. It's a word I keep coming back to but that's what we have. It was so crucial in helping us to win the first match here and keeping us in the second one."

England defeated West Indies by 16 runs in a tense finish in game one and then, after losing an important toss in game two, produced a steadfast performance only to lose on the last ball. Knight's run-out of an ominously rampant Clayton Lambert typified England's sharpness. He dived to his left, twisted to his right, threw down the stumps and easily beat Lambert, who thought he was taking a comfortable single.

Then there was Hollioake, relishing bowling at the death and taking the West Indies' ninth wicket in the final over to keep England in it. Smiles all round, as there had been a few days earlier in the first match when in equally nail-biting circumstances Matthew Fleming put down a return catch with the opposition closing in on England's total. Fleming smiled and the result was a release of tension, no recrimination, on to the next ball and eventual victory.

England's entry on to the field is marked by a huddle of the type usually seen in baseball. In this brief, buddy-buddy bonding session the players exhort each other for the innings to come. "It isn't meant to be a war dance or anything like that," said Knight. "It gets us focused for those opening overs where anything can happen."

While this is a team whose members are obviously playing for each other, Knight's form has been outstanding. He has not batted with such a flourish for perhaps two years and, in his estimation, probably ever. The injuries to his fingers which have dogged his form and approach are now behind him. He was not in prime trim when he led England A's successful tour to Kenya and Sri Lanka but a few sessions on return with Graham Gooch must have helped.

"I got to Barbados and was in touch from the start," he said. "You've got to accept that you can get out early on in taking risks but you've got to be flexible, make the shots where they'll be most effective." If it continues, this could be the most effective England side of all.