Another cock-up or a challenge to do the country proud?

Forfeits, sorry exits and pedalos mean England's World Cup history is full of damp squibs but they just might end 36 years of hurt
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The Independent Online

There are some belters to pick from. But anyone choosing "England Cricket World Cup Catastrophes" as a specialist subject would want to be particularly fluent on the happenings of 1999.

That was the year when the one-day game's premier tournament "came home" after a lengthy absence – and was marked by an opening ceremony at Lord's apparently consisting of two bangers, a couple of sparklers and a dodgy public address system. Mind you, an early damp squib prepared everyone perfectly for what was to follow from the home team, with England being eliminated before their official song was released.

It would be silly, though, to forget 1996. On that occasion our hopefuls scraped into the knock-out stage thanks to wins against Holland and United Arab Emirates, only to be humiliated in Faisalabad by a Sanath Jayasuriya-inspired Sri Lanka.

Or 2003. All that most England players remember about that tournament are the dreadful few days they spent holed up in a hotel in Cape Town while the issue of whether or not they should go to Zimbabwe raged all about them. They didn't travel and any real chance of progressing ended with the forfeiture of points.

Or 2007. That was the "back to basics" campaign – so called because England had players who were better at nudging and nurdling than blasting sixes (especially once Andrew Flintoff was suspended for a match following an early-morning Caribbean caper involving a pedalo). Funnily enough, the approach didn't work and it was a relief to almost everyone when they were eventually put out of their misery.

In fact, World Cup masterminds must look back to 1992 – five tournaments ago – to find an England challenge that did the country proud. And even then there was to be no happy ending because the likes of Graham Gooch, Ian Botham and Neil Fairbrother were denied in the final by Pakistan.

So, England are still waiting to get their hands on the trophy, 36 years after the event was first staged (it lasted just a fortnight in 1975, involved eight teams and was played on six grounds, from Leeds to London). And, on the evidence of the past few weeks, World Cup 10 (six weeks, 14 teams and umpteen grounds across India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) is unlikely to see Andrew Strauss and his team putting the record straight.

Four types of player joined their captain on yesterday's plane to Dhaka: there were those, like Strauss himself, who must be mentally and physically jaded after playing a full part in both the Ashes series and the ridiculous seven-match ODI saga that followed; then there were the walking wounded, a handful of cricketers at various stages of recovery following injury; a couple – James Tredwell and Luke Wright – who seemed almost entirely surplus to requirements in Australia, despite an ever-lengthening casualty list; and one, Ravi Bopara, who is a late replacement for broken-finger victim Eoin Morgan and could now appear in England's first game of the tournament, against Holland in Nagpur on 22 February.

What price England defying the odds, making a mockery of the recent 6-1 hammering Down Under, casting aside their ranking as the fifth-best ODI side and completing an astonishing 12-month hat-trick of World Twenty20 win, Ashes triumph and World Cup capture? Well, in Strauss and the team director Andy Flower we should trust, but a third major success since last May would surely be the most unlikely coup of the lot.

England have been making steady progress as a Test team since Strauss and Flower were thrown together as a partnership two years ago. And when it came to last year's World Twenty20, they put together a bold plan which worked like a dream: a couple of crackerjack openers in Craig Kieswetter and Michael Lumb, plenty of all-rounders to provide depth in batting and bowling, and two sharply contrasting spinners in Graeme Swann and Michael Yardy who could operate in tandem in mid-innings.

When it comes to 50-over cricket, though, England are still searching for the secret of consistent success and generally lag a long way behind Australia, South Africa and India.

True, they were badly hit by injuries in Australia. But most of the casualties happened to be bowlers – and it is England's batting which gives most cause for concern ahead of a tournament where teams will need to make a fast start while the ball is hard, then keep the scoring rate ticking over against spinners or medium-pacers before having gas left in the tank to make use of the final powerplay. Sound like England? Not at the moment.

A late decision to recall Matt Prior to the one-day side (at the expense of his fellow wicketkeeper-batsman Steve Davies) may well have been right but he succeeded in one innings out of six against the Aussies and, having opened, was back in the middle order by the end of the series. It could all come right but Strauss and Prior (or Strauss and anyone else for that matter) will not be giving opposition attacks nightmares in the way that Tendulkar and Sehwag might.

Then there is Morgan's absence. True, he failed to go beyond 30 in his most recent six attempts against Australia but the Dubliner has shown in the past the sort of inventiveness – and coolness under pressure – that could have won World Cup games against top-ranked opponents.

Now England are left praying that Kevin Pietersen will light up the middle order with some sustained magic while the likes of Strauss, Ian Bell, Jonathan Trott and Paul Collingwood make enough telling contributions to give the bowlers a fighting chance.

Suddenly, getting out of the group does not look quite the formality that it seemed when the draw was made. If England cannot finish above Holland, Ireland and either West Indies or Bangladesh, they will deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the teams of 1996, 1999 and 2007.

An ignominious exit shouldn't happen. Whether England can gain enough momentum to go into the quarter-finals with real confidence is another matter, and whereas they arrived in Australia three months ago with expectation, it is more a case of hoping for the best this time.

World Cup Guide...

GROUP A

Australia

Why they will... be the team to beat once again

Winning a fourth consecutive World Cup would be plain greedy but they are still the No 1 one-day side and look likely to make the semis. At least.

One to watch: Brett Lee. If the now brittle body is willing, 34-year-old fast bowler "Bing" can go out with a bang.



New Zealand

Why they will... be a good team to avoid in the quarter-finals

The Black Caps have lost their way in the last year but almost always make good progress in big tournaments.

One to watch: Brendon McCullum. Off the boil lately but a World Cup should put some heat back into his batting.



Pakistan

Why they will... be impossible to predict

Pakistan could win this World Cup or lose to the minnows and slink off home in disgrace. Don't waste your money trying to predict this.

One to watch: Misbah-ul-Haq. Has brought something approaching calm to the Test team. In form with the bat.

Sri Lanka

Why they will... struggle to be the force they once were

With Vaas gone and Murali a fading star, winning the World Cup looks beyond them. A quarter-final exit is favourite for these co-hosts.

One to watch: Angelo Mathews. Big-hitting, pace-bowling all-rounder who wins matches with bat and ball.

Zimbabwe

Why they will... threaten at least one upset in their group

There have been signs of improvement over the past year, with wins against India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Could claim another scalp.

One to watch: Ray Price. Canny spinner who bottles up batsmen and should enjoy sub-continental pitches.

Canada

Why they will... be delighted with any sort of victory

Fourth World Cup and two wins (over Bangladesh and Bermuda) to show for their efforts so far. Eyeing up Kenya.

One to watch: John Davison. Now 40 but forever remembered for his 76-ball 111 versus West Indies in 2003.

Kenya

Why they will... be lucky to win a match

No chance of repeating remarkable 2003 achievement of reaching the semi-finals. Occasionally beating the likes of Holland and Afghanistan is more their mark these days.

One to watch: Steve Tikolo. Nearly 40 but still a punishing batsman on his day.

GROUP B

Bangladesh

Why they will... be a real handful in this World Cup

The Tigers are a steadily improving side and, given home conditions, will fancy their chances of reaching the semis.

One to watch: Tamim Iqbal. Dynamic opening batsman who could take this tournament by storm.



England

Why they will... end 36 years of pain and finally lift the World Cup

Well, we may as well be optimistic before a ball is bowled. Realistically, it is hard to see but perhaps they can get on an Ashes-style roll.

One to watch: Kevin Pietersen. He likes the big stage and this is as big as it gets in ODI cricket.

India

Why they will... be under an almost unbearable weight of expectation

They can win this World Cup but whether carrying the hopes of millions of fans will inspire or suffocate them remains to be seen.

One to watch: Sachin Tendulkar. The Little Master can be a big winner in his last World Cup.



South Africa

Why they will... have to rid themselves of that chokers' tag

Australia are ranked No 1, India are at home but the Proteas have what it takes to emerge victorious. Well, all but a record for doing themselves justice.

One to watch: Graeme Smith. Must lead from the front with his destructive top-order batting.



West Indies

Why they will... be packing their bags after the group stage

Seven consecutive one-day defeats, against South Africa and Sri Lanka, do not augur well for these poor travellers.

One to watch: Dwayne Bravo. Wonderfully talented all-rounder who should shine with bat and ball.

Ireland

Why they will... probably spring another World Cup surprise

In 2007, the Irish did for Pakistan and Bangladesh. This time it could be West Indies and... no, don't even think it.

One to watch: Ed Joyce. Playing for the team he should have played for in 2007. England beware.



Holland

Why they will... cause a flutter or two along the way

Twenty20 cricket gives them half a chance of causing an upset but doing so across 100 overs is much more difficult.

One to watch: Ryan ten Doeschate. Hard-hitting all-rounder who can do serious damage with bat and ball.

England fixtures

Tues 22 Feb: v Holland (Nagpur, 9am UK time)

Sun 27 Feb: v India (Bangalore, 9am)

Wed 2 March: v Ireland (Bangalore, 9am)

Sun 6 March: v South Africa (Chennai, 4am)

Fri 11 March: v Bangladesh (Chittagong, 8.30am)

Thurs 17 March: v West Indies (Chennai, 9am)

David Lloyd

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