Cricket World Cup: England ponder the unthinkable

Andrew Longmore at Edgbaston sees the clouds gather over home cause
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The Independent Online
IF THEY played the theme tune for High Noon today at Edgbaston, the accompaniment would not be too much of an exaggeration.

Some considerable reputations are on the line, not to mention the health of a tournament just emerging into a post-Manchester United spoltlight. At least, after Zimbabwe's surprising - and, a number of England supporters thought, suspiciously easy - victory over South Africa, England know what they have to do.

By sunset, David Lloyd could be reflecting on his career as England coach. And what international future awaits Angus Fraser, Graeme Hick and the faithful Neil Fairbrother? Even the indefatigable Alec Stewart's days will be numbered. A pessimistic trail could be followed through pretty dark undergrowth for English cricket in the event of defeat and elimination. The Carnival of Cricket would be left for others to enjoy, and a generation of young talent lost to better publicised and more successful sports.

But let us look on the bright side. While the strutting, beligerent figure of Graham Thorpe remains at the crease England's future is in good hands. Before the rain saved England from further punishment last night, Thorpe had signalled the counter-attack in the gloaming with three fours driven imperiously through the covers. His bristling aggression will be much needed today, as a symbol of defiance as much as anything. But spare a thought for India, they deserve better too. Their demise would equally hit the entertainment quota.

Their batsmen have shown no fear, nor as the Sri Lankans found to their cost, much respect for the record books. For a while yesterday morning, as Sourav Ganguly pounced on anything short and first Rahul Dravid and then Sachin Tendulkar looked in ominously defiant form, it seemed that Fraser and Co might suffer the same ignominy as the Sri Lankans. Then England's saviour emerged in a familiar and unlikely guise.

Mark Ealham is one of those unpretentious cricketers who seldom make headlines and equally seldom let anyone down. He is as far removed in style and celebrity from Tendulkar as is possible while staying on the same planet and playing the same game. If India holds its breath when their little prince comes into bat, Ealham's sturdy presence at the crease with bat or ball hardly halts the traffic in Canterbury. In reconnoitring the England bowling line-up, Tendulkar must have targeted Ealham's gentle medium-pace for particular attention. Tendulkar says dominance is not part of his mentality, but he likes to intimidate bowlers no less than Viv Richards. Not for the first time in his life, Ealham had been underestimated.

Tendulkar arrived to predictable delirium, lent into the odd drive and then went to work on Ealham, bustling in from the Wyatt Stand End.

The world's greatest batsman versus a very decent English pro. So much for the anticipated mismatch. Varying his pace cleverly, keeping a tight low line on off-stump and moving the ball just enough, Ealham exploited Tendulkar's weakness, a desperate desire to please. Frustration mounted, until an uncharacteristic heave worthy of the village green signalled a psychological triumph for the underdog. The denouement was not long delayed. A slightly shorter ball was pounced on and Hick took a relatively simple catch. One-nil to the journeymen.

But for a wayward last over, Ealham would have had figures far better than his final 2 for 28, but his critical contribution set the tone for an efficient if unspectacular England performance in the field. What England have lacked in athleticism they have made up for in endeavour. Few balls were allowed to cross the boundary without desperate diving pursuit from a figure in light blue. No one cared much for artistic impression or laundry bills. Even Fraser did his bit, taking a swirling high catch off Ajay Jadeja at the death.

But the day of the unsung was not quite over. Debashish Mohanty is the first international cricketer to emerge from the resolutely non-cricketing state of Orissa on the Bay of Bengal. He has passed through the Dennis Lillee academy in Madras ,where the coaches tried to add a touch of outswing to a natural inswinging action. Graeme Hick will testify to the success of the tuition.

Only when he arrived back in the pavilion to view the damage on the replay might England's No 3 have seen the delivery which bowled him. Think of a medium-pacer's equivalent of Warne to Gatting: late away swing followed by a wicked break back. Mohanty's jubilation was unbounded. A touch of the Ealham spirit will be needed today.