Cricket: Slow pitches dilemma for Stewart

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OVER THE next three weeks there will be a conflict of interest if England are to find out what their best side and their game-plan will be for the forthcoming World Cup. With the captain, Alec Stewart, already indicating a "horses for courses" policy to win the Coca-Cola Cup in Sharjah, there will be little room for testing the match fitness of those not overly suited to conditions in the Gulf.

Instead of finding out how England can win a tournament in the desert with a wet weather team, the question must surely be how to discover, on the slow low pitches of Sharjah, those that will best serve the cause during a typically damp May? If the hosts are to progress through to the Super Sixes (the second stage) of the World Cup, that knowledge will be paramount.

Slow starters will be punished, as England were in the previous World Cup held in India and Pakistan. On that occasion, following a disastrous series of one-day matches in South Africa, England arrived on the sub- continent shorn both of ideas and morale.

Part of the problem then was that England had no trickery up their sleeve for the grassless wickets of India and Pakistan. Of the six World Cups played since its inception in 1975, it was England's worst campaign and they were knocked out in the quarter- finals by the eventual winners, Sri Lanka.

Ironically, the denuded surfaces of Sharjah could give a false picture as they did 18 months ago, when England won there with Adam Hollioake at the helm. Subsequent series, against the West Indies and South Africa, were all lost.

But if Hollioake remains a relevant cog, albeit one among the footsoldiers, others like Matthew Fleming and Dougie Brown have since been discarded, despite their multi-dimensionality as bits and pieces all-rounders, and replaced by specialists such as Michael Atherton and Angus Fraser.

"The conditions we expect to find in Sharjah and at home during the World Cup, are completely different," acknowledged Stewart. "Sharjah gives us the chance of playing against two teams in the World Cup, which means more preparation for it. However, the bottom line is that we are going out to win it not merely to practice. Winning helps confidence."

If England are to pick a side with the sole intention of bringing home the Coca-Cola Cup - they have two matches each against India and Pakistan to decide the finalists - there can be no place for Atherton, who prefers more pace and bounce.

And yet, if Atherton, potentially a vital player on early-season pitches in England, is to prove his match fitness, he will have to undergo a more rigorous assessment of his back than a few warm-up matches in Pakistan. Others with fitness worries like Graham Thorpe, Neil Fairbrother and Ian Austin are all well suited to Sharjah and ought to get the work-out required to seal their selection.

Despite Stewart's insistence on playing their strongest side, England should continue to tinker around the edges. Instead of draining their best bowler, Darren Gough, who should play in less than half of the games, England ought tofind out more about Andrew Flintoff's bowling and batting. At 21, he has the potential to become a deadly weapon, but inexperience means he must ascertain the parameters of his talent against international competition. As it is so often before the big event, England's thinking appears slightly muddled. Sharjah, despite the pride and the prize money, should really be treated as preparation and preamble for the big one a month later.

ENGLAND SQUAD (Coca-Cola Cup, Sharjah): A J Stewart (capt), M A Atherton, I D Austin, R D B Croft, M A Ealham, N H Fairbrother, A Flintoff, A R C Fraser, D S Gough, G Hick, A J Hollioake, N V Knight, A D Mullally, G P Thorpe, V J Wells.