England have spent three days in reasonable splendour in India's capital city. They have relaxed in a fashion barely permissible in the rest of the winter, they have been training in the hotel gym but there have been no organised team practices.
Today, they dismount from the real treadmill and reacquaint themselves with the metaphorical one when they fly to Colombo to prepare for their World Cup quarter-final against Sri Lanka. The tournament has taken an unconscionable amount of time to reach this stage – and how the rest of the world has changed during it – and England have almost single-handedly offered it nourishment.
While much of the rest of the competition has followed a predictable course with few notable, let alone memorable encounters, England have been involved in a series of classic matches all of which might make any top 10 list on a given day. So mercurial has their progress been in their six matches so far that their place in the quarter-finals was not confirmed until South Africa pulverised Bangladesh on Saturday.
The identity of their opponents became clear yesterday when India proved too much of a handful for the West Indies. It meant that England avoided going to Dhaka to face Pakistan, who are beginning to look as though they mean business. Pakistan inflicted on Australia their first World Cup defeat since 1999 on Saturday evening and, from being virtually an indisciplined rabble, they have become serious contenders.
With the advent of the knockout phase, the time for making mistakes is over. That is why it is difficult to be optimistic about England's chances of much further progress. A sequence of solid form and sustained brilliance with either bat or ball has eluded them so far. Perhaps the brief period of rest and recreation in Delhi has transformed them.
At least they have never stopped believing that this World Cup is their destiny. Somehow, they tied with India and responded to sensational defeats by Ireland and Bangladesh by beating South Africa and the West Indies when they had run out of wriggle room and the tension could not have been higher.
So confident has the batsman Ian Bell been of reaching the final that he has arranged his wedding for 6 April, four days after it. The World Cup might be sitting astride the cake. "I've not been getting too much stick from home just yet, there might be a bit more the closer we get," he said. "Chantal, my fiancée, will be desperate for us to get to the final but there will be a quick turnaround after that, three or four days I guess. I have left it to her, I just have to turn up at the moment."
Bell has sometimes looked a trifle distracted in recent innings. While he has not been alone in that among England batsmen, the combination of the nuptials and the fact that he has played every England match this winter – state friendlies, Ashes Tests, Twenty20s, warm-ups, World Cup – might be affecting his focus. He begged to differ.
"I was out for a lot of last summer with a broken foot so to get back in the England team for a whole winter of Test cricket, where I feel I am really starting to grow, and Twenty20 and 50-over cricket, I'm as happy as anyone to be playing in all forms of the game and that's where I want to go in the future as well," he said. "I feel fit, I've tried to look after myself through the winter and I did the work with this in mind while I wasn't playing, to peak now. I want to put in an innings in the next game or two or three that helps us to win the World Cup."
England are relaxed about their quarter-final but their chances are hardly enhanced by not knowing what their best team is. They made three desperate changes for their last group match against the West Indies and, although they won, there are likely to be more amendments. The new boy, Jade Dernbach, called up to replace the injured Ajmal Shahzad, could make his England debut in a World Cup quarter-final.
It is also possible that England could once more change their opening partnership. They came into the tournament with the bright idea of asking Kevin Pietersen to partner Andrew Strauss but, when Pietersen withdrew because of a hernia injury, they turned once more to Matt Prior, in his third incarnation as a one-day opener. It has hardly been a raging success – nor were the first two incarnations – and Prior is out of form. Bell may be asked to step up.
"I feel this tour that my strength of playing spin has got me in the middle order, but I do enjoy opening as well," said Bell, carefully hedging his bets. "I've not really probably had a long run at any position for a while.
"I really would have liked to have nailed the No 4 position. I feel I have played some nice innings but against Bangladesh and South Africa I didn't score many runs. I want to nail four, no doubt, but if I got the opportunity to open I would be excited about that as well."
In essence, he will do what he is asked. If he could recapture some of the effervescent form he exhibited during the Ashes in Australia, England will have no batting worries. For now the pundits' jury shows no sign of coming in.Reuse content