Cricket: Stewart still searching for answers

England's one-day cricketers have much work to do before the World Cup. By Derek Pringle in Sharjah
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The Independent Online
THESE ARE are trying days for England's one-day team. With the World Cup just around the corner, and with little room for tactical manoeuvre within a 15-man squad, consolation can only realistically come with an upturn in results. At the moment, though, Alec Stewart's hopes of kick- starting a winning streak that will carry his side through to the World Cup final appear about as likely as an outsider picking the winning camel in the 2.15 at Sharjah race-track.

Stewart was typically tight-lipped following England's 90-run Coca-Cola Cup defeat at the hands of Pakistan on Wednesday, preferring, in his words, to "praise the opposition rather than knock our guys."

Mind you, when you have just conceded the highest-ever one-day total in England's history, instant gremlin-solving is an unreasonable expectation. Instead, he and his team spent a lengthy meeting last night searching for solutions to their current malaise.

The most glaring problem, and one that really became apparent when Pakistan set about defending their massive total, is that England have little mystery in the bowling department, particularly on the bare bleached pitches found out here. If the surfaces in England during the World Cup are unlikely to prove quite as unhelpful, there is no excuse for complacency. It will take a lot more than a grassy pitch to restore team confidence, should England continue to haemorrhage runs quite as badly as they did the other day against Pakistan.

Line and length rarely trouble top batsmen on placid pitches and Stewart's dilemma over the coming days is that there is virtually no one to turn to should England suddenly need a wicket, or a telling spell to restrain a spiralling run-rate.

Even Darren Gough, so often England's miracle worker in Test cricket, rarely produces the goods with the same frequency in one-dayers. In fact, striking when there are no close fielders is an art few England bowlers of any era have mastered, mainly because they rarely encounter pitches as batsman-friendly as the ones found here.

Therein lies the problem and, even if England do bring in a specialist like Angus Fraser for today's match against India, the effect will be minimal. Indeed, that move, which would require one of the three all-rounders to be dropped, could further undermine the role of the opening batsmen, who seem unsure whether to try and make hay during the first 15 overs or bat cautiously to ensure that early wickets are not lost.

For those who remember England's victories here 18 months ago - a week is a long time in one-day cricket so the memory may well have escaped all but the fanatical - and are puzzling over the current attack's vulnerability, the reason, apparently, lies with the balls.

Last time, the balls used were Kookaburras, which went soft almost as soon as the shine had been removed, around the 15-over mark. According to Adam Hollioake, who captained England to success then, boundaries were almost impossible to hit in the last 20 overs of the innings, the ball dying off both pitch and bat.

That has certainly not been the case this time, when Duke balls, the official ball of the World Cup, have regularly been dispatched beyond the ropes. Instead of getting soft - last summer Sri Lanka's batsmen dubbed the Dukes "bat breakers" - they retain their hardness throughout the innings.

While this will tend to go against England's medium-pacers in their current desert campaign - by providing regular bounce without any lateral chicanery - it should suit them in England, where the hardness ought to prolong any movement off the seam.

Other distractions, such as disputes over the terms of their World Cup contracts, have probably not helped to swell English morale or focus minds.

The problem appears to have been in the structure of the contracts rather than the renumeration. "The fine detail has been sorted out," said David Graveney, who, with Stewart, helped draft the amendments. The chairman of selectors added: "There is now a flat signing-on fee as well as five tiers of bonuses to match progress from the first round to winning the final."

Providing the players sign them, the contracts come into effect on 18 April. Players have always had grievances over their lot and this latest spat should be settled once the new contracts arrive here in the next few days. If it is not, the England and Wales Cricket Board faces the prospect of having to pick an entirely new squad of players. Should the current losing trend not be bucked soon, that might not be the worst solution.