Buttler can open doors as England look to combat spin


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The Independent Online

Contrary to popular perception, England have managed to win one-day tournaments in Asia. There was the occasion in Pakistan immediately after the 1987 World Cup when they won 3-0 in a series which nobody cared about and nobody can quite explain why it took place.

Or there was the Singer Cup in Sharjah in 1997, when a new-look England prevailed in a four-nation competition whose purity was later gravely doubted. Oh, and there have been a couple of riproaring triumphs in Bangladesh – though not in last year's World Cup, when they lost.

There have been some authentic victories, against Sri Lanka and heavy odds in 2007, and a virtuous 3-3 draw in India in 2002 when Andrew Flintoff, after taking the final wicket, offended an entire nation by whipping off his shirt and swirling it round his head while charging around the ground. India were not too happy.

All the evidence suggests that there will not be much in either the four-match ODI series against Pakistan which starts in Abu Dhabi tomorrow or the three Twenty20s which follow. England began this tour as favourites, narrowly, in the Test series and were vanquished 3-0 amid a litany of fragile batting.

Their ODI status is deservedly much lower and their recent away form is disheartening. In Australia last winter they were vanquished 6-1, in the World Cup they sank without trace in the quarter-finals against Sri Lanka, in India last October they were swept aside 5-0.

England are a work in progress at best, Pakistan are full of hard-nosed internationals and fearless youth, greatly emboldened by their Test triumph. In their warm-up match for this series on Friday, they defeated Afghanistan with ease by seven wickets with 77 balls left.

A measure of their strength is that down to come in at No 8 in the order was Shoaib Malik, former captain and scorer of seven ODI centuries. Shoaib was one of four spin bowlers, a foretaste of what England can expect in the next two weeks.

England's preparations consisted of an unsatisfactory match against England Lions in Abu Dhabi. Unsatisfactory because the Lions were shot out for 96, meaning an artificial target had to be arranged to ensure the batsmen had some practice, and unsatisfactory too because it probably demonstrated that not many of the young men are ready to make the step to the senior side. Cubs rather than Lions.

The most exciting change in the England team is the elevation to opener of Kevin Pietersen. This might have been a role for Ian Bell, who was also struggling in the middle order, but the selectors dropped him instead.

Pietersen has not been the ODI force he was for some time. It is 34 innings and more than three years since he made the most recent of his seven hundreds, although his one-day average remains at 40.

The swagger has somehow gone from his game. He gets out to shots that once would have taken him to the stars and his mood must have been affected. If there is a note of desperation in asking him to open, as if that alone will help him to recapture former glories, it makes a kind of sense.

It offers Pietersen the chance to face more balls, to set his stamp on the innings, and the fact that he has been entrusted with the role may revitalise him. England had better hope it works because for the moment there is not a plan B.

Of equal significance, however, may be the inclusion in the squad of the uncapped 21-year-old Somerset batsman Jos Buttler. His statistics in his county's one-day middle order are staggering: an average of 77.36, a strike rate of 143.27, making him the most formidable of all one-day domestic batsmen. Buttler is undoubtedly exciting, he has met every challenge thrown at him so far and if he is still some way away from being a Test batsman he is fearless and innovative. This will be much different from anything he has played in so far but England have to find out about him and should not hang around in doing so.

The spotlight will also shine on the captain in the next few days, Alastair Cook. England have lost 10 of their past 11 matches in all cricket. They need a win and Cook must take them there.