Cricket: Triangular tournament - Limited relief for Wells and Alleyne

Australia and Sri Lanka promise stern examination of England's World Cup potential
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The Independent Online
FORGET A SILLY little thing like the Ashes. The campaign leading towards the real contest that matters in cricket begins adjacent to a building site in Brisbane tomorrow. If that offends the purist supporters of a revered institution they should be reminded that the Gabba, once a ground bordering on the quaint, now seems to be in a state of permanent reconstruction aimed at taking it into the millennium.

No doubt they harbour similar feelings about the length of time a game of cricket should last, five days being good and anything below becoming progressively worse. Test cricket, of which the Ashes series remains the most treasured example, possesses more nuances and greater skills, while the one-day stuff is treated as mere froth, a necessary diversion. But this misses the point: that limited-overs cricket, while not always a thrill-a-minute (but, then, neither are Test matches), has developed its own singular skills, particularly in batting and fielding. If the bowling needs to be worked on, doubtless some countries are already doing so.

The Carlton & United Triangular Competition, in which England play their first match against Australia tomorrow, promises to be entertaining enough - not least because Sri Lanka are the other team involved - and it is also a key part of England's preparations for the World Cup, which begins at home in May. Let there be no mistake that if England somehow win the World Cup it will do more for the game than would regaining the Ashes. It will capture the imagination, it will throw up heroes and its blazing immediacy will be part of the reason. Never mind nuances.

True, the sniffy brigade have been handed more ammunition by the allegations of betting, bribery, match-rigging and the inquiries now being conducted in both Pakistan and Australia. Whatever the outcome of these there has clearly been sharp practice and it would be as well if the International Cricket Council - who meet in Christchurch, New Zealand, next week - start to attend to the issue instead of ignoring it.

The nefarious activities associated with the shorter international form of the game, however, also serve to demonstrate its immense popularity. Not only does that apply in the sub-continent, where the bookmakers and bettors are in abundance, but in South Africa, where it has become beloved of a growing army of female spectators, and in Australia, where it was effectively invented.

England, being sniffier than most, have been wary of clasping it to their bosom. They talk of admiring innovation in others but have usually avoided the practice themselves. There are, it is said, far too many one-day internationals. Well, not where England are concerned. They managed 11 in all of last year while playing 16 Test matches. It was a touching gesture towards tradition but it was a schedule which might not have been designed to hone them for the World Cup.

The pitches they will encounter in Australia in the next six weeks and at least 10 matches (13 if they reach the final) will be somewhat different from those that will greet them in England in May, but the bearing on the World Cup squad is still overwhelming. New players like Vince Wells and Mark Alleyne, who have waited years for this sort of recognition, are now in the most favourable of positions to claim a place in the biggest tournament of all.

David Graveney, England's chairman of selectors who is also their manager for this series, rejected suggestions that England are still no nearer to knowing their men for May, a suspicion founded on the evidence of the number of players who have worn their fetching blue, almost turquoise, shirt lately. "I would say maybe three-quarters of the players in Australia will be there when we name our squad for the World Cup by the end of March," he said. "Other places may depend on conditions as well as form but, yes, players such as Vince Wells can get themselves into the World Cup in the next six weeks."

One of the places being frequently questioned is that of Ben Hollioake. Put simply, the achievement and the progress have failed to match the hype and expectation. He burst on to the scene two years ago with two marvellous innings at Lord's, a joyous 63 against Australia on his international debut followed by a wonderfully mature 98 for Surrey in the Benson and Hedges Cup final. "I've had a word with him and told him he can't continue to live on two innings," said Graveney. "They were a long time ago now." If the chairman of selectors is saying that you are in trouble but it is to be hoped Hollioake can emerge from his present slough of despondency, which is affecting all aspects of his game. Apart from anything else, he reduces the average age of the squad considerably.

According to Graveney, England's one-day strategy has been evolving since the famous victory in the Champions' Trophy in the autumn of 1997. In that competition they won all four matches which seemed to herald a fresh start. Unfortunately, they have lost eight of the 11 since. They have abandoned the idea of pinch-hitting for the sake of it and have begun to clarify their views on all-rounders, otherwise known more disparagingly as "bits and pieces" players. Either they will use them or they won't.

It is likely that the batting will be based largely on the platform of the breathtaking opening of Nick Knight and the enduring middle-order ability of Neil Fairbrother to accumulate rapid and, to the opposition, irritating singles and twos. If they pick three front-line seamers in Australia this month - Darren Gough, Dean Headley and Alan Mullally - they will surely pick them on greener pitches.

England can expect no respite with the Ashes series done. Australia's one-day squad is clearly settled. Their selectors have ignored the obvious claims of the likes of the ebullient Michael Slater and the wicket-taking leg-spinner Stuart MacGill and stuck with conclusions they had already reached. But the decision to appoint Shane Warne as captain while Steve Waugh recovers from a hamstring injury has not been greeted with universal approval.

Mind you, the impression is that those commentators who object have done so not only because of the recent revelation that Warne was once foolish enough to accept a gift from an Indian bookmaker in return for information on pitches but because he bleaches his hair. Do not assume all the staid attitudes belong solely to and in England.

If Australia have a position in the batting over which to ponder it is at No 7 now that the veteran Tom Moody has finally been ejected, but they will make plenty of runs before then. Sri Lanka have arrived in dreadful form after losing badly in Sharjah recently but then they came to England after a poor run last year and won. Mischievously, they make much of the pressure of being world champions but they manage still to prosper in the bigger matches. However, their strength in depth is suspect and the injury to the great Aravinda de Silva, forced to retire hurt in a warm- up match against Australia yesterday, will concern them.

England will start the Carlton series as underdogs - a well-worn label they would do well to rise above.

ITINERARY AND ENGLAND SQUAD

Jan 10 England v Australia (Brisbane)

Jan 11 England v Sri Lanka (Brisbane)

Jan 13 Australia v Sri Lanka (Sydney)

Jan 15 England v Australia (Melbourne)

Jan 17 England v Australia (Sydney)

Jan 19 England v Sri Lanka (Melbourne)

Jan 20-21 Australia v Sri Lanka (Hobart)

Jan 23 England v Sri Lanka (Adelaide)

Jan 24 Australia v Sri Lanka (Adelaide)

Jan 26 England v Australia (Adelaide)

Jan 29 England v Sri Lanka (Perth)

Jan 30 Australia v Sri Lanka (Perth)

Feb 3 England v Sri Lanka (Sydney)

Feb 5 England v Australia (Sydney)

Feb 6-7 Australia v Sri Lanka (Melbourne)

Feb 10 First final (Sydney)

Feb 12 Second final (Melbourne)

Feb 14 Third final (Melbourne)

A J Stewart Surrey, capt, wkt

M W Alleyne Gloucestershire

J P Crawley Lancashire

R D B Croft Glamorgan

M A Ealham Kent

N H Fairbrother Lancashire

A F Giles Warwickshire

D Gough Yorkshire

D W Headley Kent

G A Hick Worcestershire

A J Hollioake Surrey

B C Hollioake Surrey

N Hussain Essex

N V Knight Warwickshire

A D Mullally Leicestershire

V J Wells Leicestershire

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