Cricket World Cup: England in the foothills of paradise

Fluent Stewart inspires his men to a promising start but doubts over selection and fielding persist
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The Independent Online
SUDDENLY, THE game seems simple again. Win the toss in favourable conditions, insert the opposition, bowl them out cheaply and then knock off the target without fear or fuss. Four steps to heaven, as Eddie Cochran nearly had it.

England climbed them all confidently at Lord's on Friday. They are not in heaven yet - they are hardly half-way to paradise - but this should not ignore the fact that defeat against the champions, Sri Lanka, was too terrible too contemplate. The fires of hell would have loomed.

It helped that their opponents put up a flaccid performance, but it was still the beginning that England craved, one which they had done almost nothing to suggest they might achieve. Such straightforward victories in international one-dayers are, usually, eminently forgettable but this one may become memorable as the moment Alec Stewart and his men rediscovered their sense of purpose.

A place in the Super Sixes is now there for the taking. Victory over Kenya at Canterbury on Tuesday may not be a formality but it can be anticipated. Helped by the renewed conviction, sneak past South Africa at The Oval on Saturday and that state of bliss beckons. Stewart, by his own admission, delivered a sporting banality per sentence in assessing the eight-wicket victory in the opening match, two if he could squeeze them in, but the bland, tired routine about always backing his own ability, taking each match at a time and making hard decisions could not conceal his relief and delight.

The captain needed runs and acquired them with eventual fluency during the course of his 88. If you are about to end a sequence of 18 innings without assembling a one-day fifty, the first round of the most important competition likely to be held in your own country for some two decades is a fairly apposite occasion.

It is, however, a pity for Nick Knight that the captain could not have found his form earlier. In a bold selectorial move, which may prove to be utterly foolhardy, Knight, the prince of England's one-day batsman a year ago, has been dropped. Stewart conceded afterwards that not only was it a tough call, but also that it would probably not have been made had he himself been making runs. The side could risk carrying one of them but not both.

Knight is desperately unlucky. While he has not been at the top of his game, a combination of faulty foot movement and uncertainty of approach, he has been damned by low scores in the warm-up matches. Rehearsals never were the place to parade your whole repertoire.

Having indicated earlier in the week that they would, rightly, stick with Knight, the team selectors for the tournament, David Graveney, David Lloyd and Stewart decided to ditch him. Thus, Nasser Hussain, who was not picked in the original squad, was called up to open the batting in an international one-dayer for the first time. Some planning.

Hussain neither disgraced himself nor covered himself in glory and the half-century opening partnership was welcome. He is almost a guaranteed a place for the rest of the tournament. Knight's World Cup would appear to be over before it has begun. Having omitted him for poor form it would be difficult, presumably, to recall him, unless injuries occur, because he will have no chance to return to good form. Make no mistake, it is a risky business.

If the selectors' performance was not flawless nor, despite the handsome margin, was that of the team. "Thoroughly professional" was another of the descriptions trotted out by Stewart, but he will know that was not quite so. There are aspects to address, and it is much wiser and easier to do so while a team are winning.

England's fielding is far from beautiful, and too often it is ineffective. They were able to keep attacking for much of Sri Lanka's innings, but there were several irksome errors. Fielders dived over the ball, they failed to make sufficient ground to cut it off, above all they kept missing the stumps. Perhaps it is too late to provide a solution to the first two.

They are not an athletic team, and they may have settled for trying to score a few more runs in many games, to compensate for those they have failed to save. But they can, they must, rectify their proneness to locate only their team-mate backing up behind the stumps when they are attempting direct hits. At least, they took the catches offered, all nine of them, which is not something that can be invariably reported about England teams.

England bowled almost as well as could have been expected. Ian Austin, on whom so many expectations are pinned, took an over or two to settle down when he was given the new ball at the start, but he was admirably phlegmatic. He smiled, stuck out his tummy and then adjusted his line. It helped that Alan Mullally came on as first change. The fifth bowler gives reason to ponder.

There is as yet no place for Robert Croft, the sole specialist spinner. Fiddling about with a blend of Graeme Hick, Adam Hollioake and, most vulnerable, Andrew Flintoff, is one way but only one way. Croft has a part to play if England are to progress.

The batting will face sterner examinations than the Sri Lankans could offer. But there were crucial runs for Stewart, and Hick looked what he has become, a solid, highly accomplished one-day player. (He was banned, by the International Cricket Council, from using a blue bat to match his uniform, which smacks of shortsightedness and, while it makes a change from England players being in dispute with the England and Wales Cricket Board, is not designed to make for a happy bunch of chaps).

Sri Lanka have much to do. Arjuna Ranatunga said they had been out- played and he could hardly do anything else. They simply did not make enough runs and never looked like doing so. That is not the fault of England, whose followers are now doubtless concerned that the team have peaked too soon.