Cricket: Pressure builds early on England

Coca-Cola Cup: Azharuddin takes India to respectability but innings distinctly lacks pyrotechnics
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India 222-5 England 52-2

SKIRMISHES BETWEEN underdogs rarely make for pretty viewing and India's meeting with England in Sharjah did not fail to live up to its pre-match billing of the bland leading the bland.

India's total of 222 for 5, after winning the toss, does not represent a huge hurdle by current standards especially on this pitch - the same one as when Pakistan compiled 323 for 5 against England on Wednesday night. With a decent start, it should have required little more than regulation batting.

Yet pressure can bring uncertainty and a searching opening spell from Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad, brought further woe for England's struggling opening batsmen.

First to go was Alec Stewart, who, with his feet rooted to the spot, drove around a ball from Srinath that came in on the angle. The England captain is occasionally prone to bad trots when his feet look set in concrete.

But if his problem is a product of playing on the even but high bouncing pitches at The Oval, Nick Knight's problems stem from a loss of confidence from playing on the uneven jigsaw puzzles at Edgbaston.

Having seemingly forsaken his clean striking for a more cautious role, Knight's technique is not yet up to working the ball around against international opposition. Two balls after Stewart was out, Knight got in a tangle against Prasad and was bowled off the inside edge. With Graeme Hick and Graham Thorpe left to patch up the damage England reached the 15 over mark on 52 for 2 - virtually level pegging with India at the same stage.

Batting first, there were so few pyrotechnics from the Indian batsmen - they took 13 boundaries off England as compared to Pakistan's 30 - that it would be tempting to suggest that this was a game for purists. Tempting, except that such a notion totally defeats the point of one-day cricket as something that has been dumbed down to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Apparently India have been laid low by a virus since arriving here and were below par as well as strength. As the virulence of the bug has yet to be ascertained, it was difficult to tell whether or not England put in an enhanced performance in the field. As it was at least 20F cooler than the previous day, when the mercury climbed to 110, it probably was, though several catches still went to ground.

Until Mohammed Azharuddin, unbeaten on 74, found his touch in the second half of the innings, India batted as meekly as men on the final drag of their last cigarette. Visualisation is a tool much beloved of sports psychologists and their charges these days. But if India's batsmen were using the technique yesterday, they appeared to have mental snapshot of a green stinker at Trent Bridge, rather than a flat belter in Sharjah.

The Indian captain, who has made more than 300 one-day international appearances in his distinguished career, arrived at the crease with his side in some trouble at 61 for 2 with 20 of their 50 overs already spent.

But despite batting with a runner for the latter stages of his innings, Azharuddin lifted the run-rate beyond four an over by steering his side to a total which at least gave his bowlers a fighting chance.

It was not one of Azharuddin's vintage displays and the England attack, despatched all round the stadium by Pakistan's flamboyant strokemakers during Wednesday's comprehensive 90-run defeat, limited him to just four boundaries during his 85-ball innings.

Able to avoid the heavy barrage that greeted them against Pakistan, England's bowlers were allowed to operate under plan A - which is to bowl straight and hope the opposition dig themselves into a big hole. Most of the time, there is nothing wrong with that and it may yet work a treat in the World Cup on the early season pitches in England.

It certainly contained India, who after Darren Gough's early removal of Sourav Ganguly, seemed intent on not losing wickets. Apart from Rahul Dravid, who chipped a simple return catch back to Hick and when the slog was on, they largely succeeded.

Wickets in hand is how one-day cricket used to be played and Bobby Simpson, Australia's former coach and now a consultant with India, may well have been the mastermind behind it.

When you have lost eight one-dayers on the trot to arch-rivals Pakistan, some kind of return to basics is required. The only trouble is they seem to have eschewed the other touches, such as pinching quick singles, that have since become Simpson's legacy to Australian cricket.

Sandogopan Ramesh, a left-handed opener for who fresh air shots seem as likely as those finding the bat, was particularly guilty. As the man playing in place of Sachin Tendulkar, there is bound to be pressure. Somehow he managed to make 60, though even he cannot be quite certain how.

SHARJAH SCOREBOARD

India won toss

INDIA

S Ramesh c Stewart b Gough 60

132 min, 97 balls, 5 fours

S C Ganguly c Stewart b Gough 7

37 min, 26 balls

R S Dravid c and b Hick1 6

48 min, 38 balls, 1 four

*M Azharuddin not out 74

127 min, 85 balls, 2 fours, 2 sixes

A D Jadeja c Thorpe b Flintoff 21

37 min, 27 balls, 1 four

R R Singh c Gough b Flintoff 11

11 min, 12 balls

N R Mongia not out 20

31 min, 22 balls, 2 fours

Extras (lb3, w3, nb7) 13

Total (for 5, 50 overs) 222

Fall: 1-24 (Ganguly), 2-61 (Dravid), 3-120 (Ramesh), 4-159 (Jadeja), 5-175 (Singh).

Did not bat: S B Joshi, A Kumble, J Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad.

Bowling: Gough 10-0-42-2 (nb5, w1) (5-0-17-1, 3-0-11-1, 2-0-14-0); Mullally 10-1-32-0 (nb1, w1) (6-1-16-0, 2-0-7-0, 2-0-9-0); Austin 8-0-45-0 (3-0- 13-0, 4-0-21-0, 1-0-11-0); Ealham 7-0-36-0 (2-0-9-0, 3-0-15-0, 2-0-12- 0); Croft 5-0-22-0 (nb1) (4-0-15-0, 1-0-7-0); Hick 5-0-18-1 (w1); Flintoff 5-0-24-2 (one spell each).

Progress: 50: 64 min, 92 balls. 100: 114 min, 171 balls. 150: 160 min, 233 balls. 200: 204 min, 292 balls.

Score after 15 overs: 50 for 1.

Ramesh 50: 109 min, 82 balls, 4 fours. Azharuddin 50: 99 min, 67 balls, 2 fours.

ENGLAND

N V Knight b Prasad 11

*A J Stewart b Srinath 11

G A Hick not out 17

G P Thorpe not out 7

Extras (b2, lb3, nb1) 6

Total (for 2, 15 overs) 52

Fall: 1-25, 2-25.

To bat: N H Fairbrother, A Flintoff, M A Ealham, I D Austin, R D B Croft, D Gough, A D Mullally.

Umpires: K T Francis (Sri Lanka) and D B Hair (Aus).

TV Replay Umpire: I D Robinson Match Referee: S Wettimuny.

Compiled by Jo King

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