Disaster for England at the Cricket World Cup has become a convention. They invariably roll up at the competition with issues of form, fitness and fatigue, which is usually soon followed by another F-word as they leave early with tails between their legs.
The pattern for the 2011 tournament, which begins in the Indian sub-continent in 18 days, is evolving with uncanny familiarity. All the batsmen seem to be out of form, all the bowlers seem to be unfit and everyone, while they claim otherwise, appears to be weary.
At least, the team are playing weary cricket, shadows of the formidable individuals who had taken this country by storm until only three weeks ago. England are 4-1 down and the seven-match one-day series is already lost with two games left, a salutary rejoinder to those who think there is any merit in playing this almost interminable type of competition at the end of a Test series.
On the other hand, it is possible that the attendances at Sydney tomorrow and in Perth on Sunday will hold up well because what Australians like more than anything else is a winner. They desert losers quicker than Brett Lee has been bouncing Andrew Strauss this past fortnight and, while a limited-overs series victory following the loss of the Ashes hardly amounts to redemption, it has been unexpectedly consoling.
The concern for England, with the World Cup once more so close, is not simply that they are in a habitual state of uncertainty but that they are losing, for once, to an Australian side of limited accomplishment. If they cannot give this lot a game, albeit in their own backyard, their prospects in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka will be on the low side of minimal as usual.
In both batting and bowling serious concerns have developed. The bowling resources are now stretched so thinly that the Durham fast bowler Liam Plunkett is flying from the England Lions tour in the West Indies to join the senior squad for the final match in Perth. If this seems extravagant in terms of time and money it is a measure of how worried England are about their bowling attack.
Tim Bresnan and Graeme Swann have already left the tour for home and, although they are said to be heading in the right direction, they are both in a race against time to be ready for the World Cup. Scans were due to be carried out overnight on Ajmal Shahzad's hamstring and Chris Tremlett's side to check the extent of their injuries.
Only Jimmy Anderson of England's probable seam attack in the World Cup is fully fit. There was, however, some brighter news yesterday of Stuart Broad whose abdominal tear forced him to miss the last three Test matches in the Ashes. He is back with the team in Australia and has been bowling some gentle seamers in the nets. But whether he makes the start of the World Cup remains doubtful and England face the daunting prospect of having to make changes to their squad before a ball is bowled because so many of their original choices will not be ready for the tournament's start.
Broad said: "I think I'm a little bit ahead of schedule. It's a frustrating injury because it only seems to hurt when I bowl so I can only judge when I've bowled some overs, but I don't get any problems when I'm in the gym now."
To play the opening World Cup game against the Netherlands, Broad ideally needs to play one of the warm-up matches. Everything he is doing in training here is geared towards that but nobody dares predict his full recovery by then.
"We've just got a feel of how the muscle is feeling," he said. "At this moment I'd like to think there is no problem there at all, but I won't know until I've bowled off my full run, which I'm hoping to do by next Sunday."
If Broad runs in without mishap at the weekend that is one problem solved. The batting may take a little longer and the balance of the side is looking unwieldy. At present Paul Collingwood is doing the job of the fifth bowler and batting at seven. This is perverse thinking because in only 20 of his 192 matches has Collingwood bowled his full complement of 10 overs and in 124 of them he has bowled five or fewer. He is a support bowler, always has been, always will be. But he has to play despite his woeful batting form.
The batting is muddying the clear waters needed and sooner or later England will have to drop a batsman. Strauss is, of course, untouchable as captain, so too are Matt Prior as the wicketkeeper and Collingwood as the all-rounder. Which leaves Jonathan Trott, the only one to have been making runs, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell and Eoin Morgan, who have all had rotten series. One of them will probably have to go sooner or later. It would be ruthless to drop Trott but the management may yet come to think a World Cup depends on it.
The walking wounded
Stuart Broad (abdominal tear, 7 Dec) set to return for World Cup warm-up against Canada on 16 February.
Tim Bresnan (calf tear, 23 Jan) should recover in time for World Cup start.
Graeme Swann (knee/lower back, sent home 25 Jan) expected back for Netherlands fixture on 22 February.
Ajmal Shahzad (hamstring strain, 31 Jan) and Chris Tremlett (side strain, 30 Jan) underwent scans yesterday.Reuse content