Carry on walloping Matilda, England

Recent form and that sensation in Cardiff present a stunning opportunity to make an Ashes point
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The Independent Online

England simply keep on beating Australia. And now so do Bangladesh. Consider the bald facts. Who has won in each of the most recent Test, one-day international and Twenty20 matches between the game's oldest enemies? And who has been the victor in the first one-day game for two years between the best team in the world and the worst?

In the first case, it is England: respectively, in Sydney in January 2003, by 225 runs; in Birmingham in September 2004, by six wickets with 21 balls to spare; and in Southampton on Monday, by 100 runs with the tourists failing to use more than a quarter of their allotted overs. In the second case, moresensationally still, it is Bangladesh, who all but stopped the world turning yesterday with a five-wicket victory in Cardiff.

England will draw further succour from that and may reflect on their own recent performances. Three different formats, three consecutive years, three different venues, three overwhelming victories. They could be the Martini Boys: any time, any place, anywhere. Of course, the simple facts obscure the greater truth of what preceded those triumphs. By the time England won at the SCG they had already surrendered the Ashes, for the eighth consecutive time, in 11 days, and when they won so handsomely at Edgbaston it was after 14 successive limited-overs defeats by Australia. At least they have a pristine record in Twenty20.

So, it would be silly to be emphatic that a pattern is emerging. It would also be foolhardy to think that the Twenty20 triumph, pleasing, nay bloody marvellous, though it was, had any bearing on anything. And it would be dangerous to think that the outcome of the NatWest Series and the NatWest Challenge ­ the first of seven matches between the sides takes place in Bristol today ­ will influence the conduct of the Ashes. And yet with each passing day ­ especially one like yesterday ­ it is possible to wonder if Australia are fatally weakened somewhere.

It was the Ashes that came hurtling to mind yesterday when it was announced that Simon Jones will leave the squad for a week of rehab-ilitation on his sore right knee ­ though scans have given it the all-clear. Jones has been replaced in the squad by Chris Tremlett, of Hampshire, who has begun this season in splendid fettle and increasingly looks the part with his height, accuracy and bounce.

There is an argument that Tremlett should have had his opportunity earlier this season, but England have been fortunate previously in unearthing new players through injury to others, as Marcus Trescothick, James Anderson and Andrew Strauss would testify. Tremlett for the Ashes, then.

If England can win again today the feeling will grow that the side either carefully designed or cobbled together (take your pick) by the coach, Duncan Fletcher, and the captain, Michael Vaughan, are capable of going places. It is already apparent that they are not intimidated by Australia.

Fletcher, a man not given to overblown talk, was certain of one thing when he reflected on the ICC Champions Trophy semi-final. At the time, late last month, his statements seemed rather bold, not least because of whose mouth they were coming from. But the way in which England won the Twenty20 on Monday began to demonstrate that he had a point. Incidentally, Australia lost five wickets for one run, and the only time they have done that in a Test was in 1934 at Lord's, the last time England beat them at the ground. An arcane portent, but after the shellings England have received, any portent in a storm will suffice.

It was not the fact that England at last won a one-dayer against Australia ­ they were bound eventually to do that ­ but the manner of it. "I feel it was important we won at Edgbaston that day, although it was one-day cricket," Fletcher said. "It was pretty clinical. It wasn't a game where we scrambled home, or where a little bit of luck was involved. We set some sort of standard. I believe we can play better. If we all play to that ability we've got a good Test side. The guys are confident and exciting and we haven't reached our true potential yet."

Fletcher was suggesting that the Trophy win could have an effect because it did so much to stoke self-belief. The chief memories of it are of Stephen Harmison giving Matthew Hayden the hurry-up, of Vaughan counter-attacking, reminding us again that he moves up a gear when the opposition demand it, and of Brett Lee attempting to put the frighteners on Andrew Flintoff. There were several other vignettes. All concerned knew that it might, just, have repercussions.

If that works for England at Nevill Road today, then Nevill Road could work on some-thing later in the piece. The precedent is not convincing, as England hammered Australia in the 1997 one-day series, swept them aside in the First Test and were then inexorably juggernauted out of the Ashes.

But Fletcher has made himself clear. "Last year we got ourselves out of some deep holes. It shows character in the side, and you need character to break down barriers. Confidence and self-belief, that's what it is all about."

It is important that England suffer no more injuries and stop experimenting, which means settling on an opening partnership. Since Nick Knight's retirement, England have used six pairings in 42 matches. They started with Trescothick and Vikram Solanki, ditched them, then went back to them. They flirted with Geraint Jones, but now seem to have jettisoned that late in the planning, since Jones was saying last week how determined he was to be an opener.

By contrast, Australia have had ­ wait for it ­ 12 different pairs in 56 matches. But Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden have featured in 34 together and 20 individually.

It would be useful toEngland's pretensions to the 2007 World Cup if they could decide that Trescothick and Strauss were the chosen ones. England are not established enough yet to be flexible, and the suggestion that Strauss replaced Jones because of more sporting English pitches was disingenuous. It was after all against Bangladesh at The Oval, the truest of pitches on which England play in England.

At any rate, Jones should be more comfy at No 7. He is too easily maligned, but among England's one-day keepers he has a higher batting average than all except Alec Stewart, easily the best scoring rate and also the most dismissals per match.

Australia are smarting. England will have to be razor-sharp in every element, not least fielding, where Jones is influential. Today could begin to tell us if Vaughan's team really can keep on winning.

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