Bob Willis: Well done, boys. Now for your next trick just bring to an end our World Cup agony
Saturday 08 January 2011
The Berlin Walls are coming down, one after another, for England's cricketers.
They had not beaten Australia in a Test match at Lord's for 75 years, but 2009 took care of that. Now the depressing old statistic about failing to win an away Ashes series since 1987 has been smashed to pieces. So perhaps the time is ripe for them to write another piece of history.
Retaining the Ashes in the way they did was a fantastic achievement for England, and the players thoroughly deserve to spend a couple of days celebrating their success in Sydney. But coach Andy Flower and captain Andrew Strauss are not easily satisfied so we can safely assume that attention will turn soon enough towards building for next month's World Cup on the subcontinent.
I am certain Flower is determined to see England's one-day fortunes improve – and the seven 50-over internationals against Australia which follow next week's two Twenty20 games should enable coach, captain and selectors to finalise their plans for the World Cup.
To say England are overdue a good run in the World Cup is putting it mildly. It's not so much they've never won it, despite nine attempts, but more the fact that their efforts since reaching the 1992 final have been diabolical. The last campaign, in the Caribbean, was a total embarrassment – just like the 1996 tournament when our only victories, before being splattered around Faisalabad by Sri Lanka, were against the Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates. Between those two debacles, England's players spent most of the 1999 event grumbling behind the scenes about their pay and their workload, and most of the 2003 competition worrying about whether or not to go to Zimbabwe.
When it comes to World Cups, there has always been a calamity waiting just around the corner for England. But I don't think Flower and Strauss are in the business of being involved in embarrassing tournaments so while winning this next one will be a tall order there is room for optimism.
There is no doubt England will want to take the one-day series against Australia before they get their heads around spending what will be close to two months on the subcontinent. But, regardless of results, I don't think they will necessarily pick the same XI for each match because they may want to look at a few different options.
Even without Stuart Broad, who is out of the Australia one-dayers but hoping to be fit for the World Cup after his stomach muscle injury, England look to have a pretty good side on paper. If anything they are perhaps missing another special batsman, to go with Kevin Pietersen and Eoin Morgan, but perhaps this is the time for Ian Bell – at the top of his form during the Ashes series – to really make his mark on the one-day team.
It is also getting close to D-Day for England as far as individuals like Luke Wright and Ravi Bopara are concerned. Wright is in the one-day squad in Australia but how much more time are they going to invest in him or could Bopara come from outside that party and make the World Cup trip?
One of the biggest problems for England over the years in 50-over cricket has been getting their innings off to a decent start. They have tried umpteen different opening partnerships, and every wicketkeeper who comes into the squad seems to end up opening the batting. Then there was the Strauss situation, where he was not picked for the one-day team until returning as captain.
Now it seems as though Strauss and England's latest keeper-batsman, Steven Davies, are the preferred openers. Matt Prior has to be in the selectors' thoughts, given his Ashes form, but it just seems they think he has had enough chances in the one-day team and that Davies is their man of the moment.
When it comes to the World Cup, the first major problem for England to overcome will be their record of failure on the subcontinent. Apart from getting to the 1987 final, of a tournament held in India and Pakistan, they have generally struggled to come to terms with one-day cricket in that part of the world.
Their batsmen will need to adapt to the conditions but at least the attack – with spinners Graeme Swann and Michael Yardy probably operating in tandem and both Jimmy Anderson and Broad having the ability to find reverse swing – looks well equipped to meet the challenge.
In many ways, though, the toughest test for coach Flower will be to keep the minds of his players occupied during a ridiculously long tournament which takes a month just to reach the knockout stage. Still, at least the match schedule has been kind to England in that they alternate between weaker and stronger sides during their group phase – and their games against India and South Africa should provide a fair indication of whether or not they have a real chance in the tournament.
You only have to finish in the top four, of seven, to progress to the quarter-finals so that should not be too much of a hardship. Thereafter, we will have to wait and see, but maybe – having won the World Twenty20 last year and now retained the Ashes – England are on a roll.
Whatever happens during the rest of the winter, though, Strauss's team deserve every word of praise they have received for their Test series triumph. Apart from the Perth aberration they were better than Australia in all departments – and particularly bowling.
Alastair Cook had a fantastic series at the top of the order and it was so refreshing to see the team post 500-plus totals on a regular basis. But the fact they did make so many runs underlines that the pitches were pretty flat and yet England kept ripping through an Australian batting line-up that many people expected to score a stack of runs in their own conditions. That is why I give so much credit to Anderson, Steven Finn, Chris Tremlett, Tim Bresnan and Swann.
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