Connor's aim: first Australia, next the world

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The Independent Online

One huge, familiar barrier lies between England and the winning of the Women's World Cup. It is called Australia. As early as the opening match of the eighth tournament, which begins in South Africa on Tuesday, Clare Connor's side will discover how formidable it will be this time.

One huge, familiar barrier lies between England and the winning of the Women's World Cup. It is called Australia. As early as the opening match of the eighth tournament, which begins in South Africa on Tuesday, Clare Connor's side will discover how formidable it will be this time.

The luck, or the bloody-mindedness, of the draw has brought together the old enemies in the first batch of round-robin matches. It will not decide who wins the cup, but it will indicate how far England have risen and how far, if at all, Australia have fallen.

For England to continue to entertain serious thoughts about their prospects there will need to have been significant movement in both directions. Strictly speaking, it will have no bearing whatever on the Ashes to come this summer, but boy would it make us all feel much better.

In a record bearing undesirable comparisons with their male counterparts (until the Champions Trophy last September), England have lost 16 consecutive one-dayers to Australia. The last time they beat them was in the 1993 World Cup, which they went on to win. In Tests, they have gone for 14 matches and 21 years without a victory.

"There is a little bit of mystique surrounding Australia," said Connor, trying hard to be realistic while refusing to concede too much ground. "It's good to get them over and done with in the round-robin early on. Two warm-up matches and two one-day internationals, plus the way we've played before coming to South Africa, puts us in a good position to play Australia early on, and all of us in our mind's eye picture ourselves playing them in the final."

England unquestionably have a good opportunity. Since their poor showing in the 2000 World Cup, they have made dauntless progress. The coach, Richard Bates, has built on the progress made by his Australian predecessor, John Harmer. Where Harmer brought confidence, motivation and technique, Bates has added tactical knowledge, technology and fine-tuned coaching. Graham Gooch has helped with the batting, Troy Cooley with the bowling, Trevor Penney with the fielding, while Wayne Noon, the former Nottinghamshire wicketkeeper, has worked with the highly experienced Jane Smit.

"It is in its way a little bit like Clive Woodward did with the England rugby team, and all the bases have been covered," Connor said. "People are fitter and stronger, there are few injuries, people are hitting the ball harder, throwing the ball further and covering more ground in the field."

Such preparation has helped England to have sound and uplifting wins against South Africa at home and away, and against the world champions, New Zealand, at home last summer. This means that a semi-final place is the least that they expect.

The format of the tournament is much superior to the men's equivalent. Each of the eight teams play each other once in a round-robin (the other sides having been eliminated in a qualification tournament), with the top four making the semi-finals. The fancied quartet in possible order is Australia, England, the fading champions New Zealand and India.

Two players survive from England's 1993 World Cup win, wicketkeeper Smit and the seam bowler Clare Taylor. It is 17 years since Taylor made her one-day international debut and she is now at her fifth World Cup, having made a record 99 appearances. "It's probably the last one, because there are some good youngsters waiting in the wings and it's about time I gave them a chance," she said. "But I enjoy playing, and the new training methods have given me a new lease of life."

There seems to be a spirit and a drive about England that may propel them all the way. In left-arm fast bowler Lucy Pearson, batsmen Charlotte Edwards and (the other) Claire Taylor, and spinning all-rounders Connor and Rosalie Birch, plus Smit's durable wicketkeeping, they have genuinely excellent cricketers. They also possess a competitive edge.

Connor is charming off the field but a combative cricketer on it, who refuses to be daunted by Australia. "Tuesday's game isn't the be-all and end-all, but the focus is on Australia," she said. "In the last Ashes series we bowled them out twice for under 100.

"It's the English way to put them on a pedestal, but we have seen that they have got weaknesses and we also saw that when they were exposed they turned on each other. That was the start of them being tested, and they didn't respond well."

If - always a big word - Connor and her team can put those words into practice, England can win the World Cup for the third time and give this Anglo-Australian year the best of all possible starts.

England's schedule: Tues 22 March v Australia. Thurs 24 March v Sri Lanka. Sat 26 March v Ireland. Mon 28 March v India. Wed 30 March v South Africa. Fri 1 April v New Zealand. Sun 3 April v West Indies. Tues 5 April First semi-final. Thurs 7 April Second semi-final. Sun 10 April Final.

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