Cricket: World Cup - England bowlers prove a qualified success

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MOST OF the 18 matches played so far in the World Cup have had some ebb and flow. Not this one. England v Zimbabwe was not much of a spectacle, but it was just what England needed: a victory, which virtually ensures that they will reach the Super Six, and a crushing one, which repairs a lot of the damage that Saturday's batting collapse did to their net run-rate.

For England not to qualify, I reckon Zimbabwe will have to beat South Africa on Saturday, India will have to beat England at the same time, and Zimbabwe plus the winner of today's game at Taunton will both have to end up with a higher net run-rate than England's. This is a treble which is infinitely more improbable than anything involving Manchester United.

In a normal competition, England would now be able to relax a little. But this is not a normal competition - it is an interestingly innovative one (in one way) which requires teams not just to qualify but to collect victories against their fellow qualifiers. Following their defeat to South Africa, England can only get two points to take with them. If the third qualifier is India, England will go through empty-handed, because India, in order to qualify, have to win both today and against England on Saturday. If India do not qualify, Sri Lanka most likely will, and England will have two precious points to take through to the Super Six.

Still with me? Then let's stop doing Applied Maths and talk about the best feature of England's game - their bowling.

The bowlers have been lucky in that Alec Stewart has won all four tosses, but they have made excellent use of that good fortune. In the run-up to the tournament Allan Donald picked his World One-Day XI for Wisden Cricket Monthly and he surprised a few people by selecting Darren Gough. His description of Gough as "the complete one-day bowler" has not looked overstated in the past four games. Gough, like Donald himself, is close to mastering the art of attacking without being expensive. His reverse-swung yorker is in the Pakistani class. With nine wickets, he is the leading wicket- taker in the Cup and, considering that he is used exclusively as a spearhead, and his extra pace makes him relatively hittable, to have conceded only 141 from just under 40 overs at a rate of 3.65 is a feat of meanness.

But not as mean as Alan Mullally. At the presentation yesterday evening, Alastair Campbell said he had bowled "fantastically," which gave the British press their first taste of someone named Alastair Campbell making a generous remark at a press conference.

Mullally bowled no fewer than four maidens yesterday, on his way to figures of 2 for 16. Overall, he has conceded only a fraction more than three an over - 40 overs, six maidens, 122 runs, eight wickets. He too is not bowling to contain: when he beat the bat yesterday, it was for pace as much as movement.

Some observers, such as the former New Zealand captain Jeremy Coney, think Mullally ought to be opening the bowling. It certainly seemed so on Saturday, when the old metronome that is Angus Fraser suffered an embarrassing outbreak of rust. But Fraser is a groove bowler, who thrives on hard work and he was back in that groove yesterday. He even took his first World Cup wicket, at the grand old age of 33. He would be easier to get hold of in mid-innings than Mullally is, because he is more inclined to drop the ball on the same spot. Fraser has earned another go, but it remains possible that Mullally's 2 for 16 might have been 5 for 20 if he had had the new ball. We will never know, but we will have a clearer idea if he is given the new ball on Saturday, if only in a spirit of enquiry.

Then there is Mark Ealham. In his quiet way - he may be the world's most solidly built mouse - Ealham has had an excellent World Cup. He bowls very few wides, he swings the white ball less, if anything, than he normally swings the red one, and he varies his pace beautifully - which is the one area where Gough, Mullally and Fraser lag behind other pace attacks. He dragged England back into the match against South Africa by removing both openers.

Yesterday England fielded two more seamers, Adam Hollioake and Andy Flintoff and, as weak links go, they were a lot less feeble than the Australian bit-part bowlers on Sunday or the West Indians' the Sunday before.

Holding a World Cup in May, when the roar of the football crowd is still so loud and the kids, give or take a half-term, are still at school, makes very little sense. But it has allowed England's bowlers to do what they do best. There was a bloke in a T-shirt at Trent Bridge which read: "I'm not just perfect - I'm Zimbabwean." What he meant to say was: England's bowling was not just perfect - it was English.

Tim de Lisle is editor of "Wisden Cricket Monthly".