England have become familiar with performing in a different hemisphere as part of their meticulous preparations for the 11th World Cup. Unfortunately, they may be about to discover that too many of their competitors are playing on another planet.
The general consensus that England have developed into a better team than that which arrived in Australia six weeks ago is not and cannot be matched by a sincere conviction that they are capable of winning the tournament for the first time. The gulf between the team led with burgeoning astuteness by Eoin Morgan and the genuine contenders could be exposed in the opening days.
First up tomorrow at a raucous MCG will be Australia, the hosts and favourites whose present swagger is slightly, but only slightly, being knocked off its confident stride by a festering issue over the captaincy.
Next Friday, England will face New Zealand in Wellington. The joint hosts appear to have timed their run to perfection, as if they knew and understood – as everyone should know and understand – that the preceding four years were all about peaking for this moment.
Two days ago, New Zealand confirmed their credentials as a deadly serious proposition by heavily defeating South Africa, the third in the upper echelon of potential victors, in a practice match.
If England can somehow eke out a win in one of the two fixtures, everything else will become so much easier and anything will suddenly become possible. Lose both, as is eminently possible – and never underestimate the craving of both opponents to put one over on the Poms – and qualification for the quarter-finals, which is the minimum requirement, becomes less straightforward.
When the groups were drawn, the seedings were based on world rankings at the time. England were No 1. Through neglect and complacency, the age-old failure properly to care for one-day cricket, England have slipped alarmingly to sixth.
The game has advanced while they have hardly been looking. Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and, to a lesser extent, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have embraced the new regulations and how the game is best played within them. England, forever destined to be restricted by a fear of the unknown and a wariness of imagination, are arriving at the party late and even then only half-dressed.
This is not to dismiss their chances completely. The improvements that became apparent during the recent triangular series, also involving Australia and India, embraced deciding on their preferred team and precisely what kind of cricket they should play.
There is enough talent in their upper order to suggest they are capable of making big totals. What they lack is not only the muscular power and instinctive innovation of the likes of the three favourites but the sure understanding of when they should be used.
The batting still fails too often for comfort but it extends further than that. When they are in command, as they were against Australia in Hobart last month, they still fell short of what was a workable total. That bespeaks a lack of what is going on in the game as it is played in 2015.
The reunification of Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, allied to the possible resurgence of Steve Finn, is excellent for the attack. Anderson’s genius as a swing bowler could and should help the side to make early inroads.
In the final overs, however, England have come to look like an attack ready to be torn apart. If the unofficial word from the camp is to be believed, they are trusting that the yorker will still do the trick. There is some evidence to suggest that the yorker has had its day as a weapon of destruction or containment but when it is bowled with the precision of a Swiss watch its effectiveness should still not be underestimated. England will not put all their eggs in that particular basket. Expect judicious use of the bouncer.
As is always now the case with Cricket World Cups, this tournament at 49 days is much too long. How fondly we should recall, even if you were not around, the inaugural 1975 tournament played in what seems at this distance to have been a perpetually blissful June. It had eight teams, was done and dusted in 15 days, and culminated in what remains the greatest of the 11 finals so far.
On that unforgettable day in high summer at Lord’s, Clive Lloyd, captain of West Indies, scored 102 from 85 balls to remind us, despite the multitude of changes since then, that today’s batting wizards do not have exclusive rights on rapid scoring. But there lies another change – the idea of West Indies reaching the final this time, let alone winning it, is fanciful. Lloyd, 40 years on, is their chairman of selectors.
This is the last time (until the next revision) that the tournament will feature so many of the lesser teams. In its wisdom, the International Cricket Council has decided to reduce to 10 the number of teams competing in the final stages. The top eight teams will qualify as of right, while all the others must take part in a qualifying competition from which two will emerge.
It would have helped if the smaller sides had narrowed the gap more than they have. Of course, part of the reason they have not is because they are refused the opportunity to play the major teams between World Cups. More than a one-off shock or two this time would help their cause.
Had the ICC acted out of the perfectly understandable need to cut the length of time of the competition, which leaves the most devoted soul begging for the end after a month, it might have been forgiven. But with four fewer teams the 2019 event in England will last for three more days than this one. And why not?
For all its manifest faults, there are some magnificent players operating in the 2015 tournament who have changed the way in which the game is played. Over the next few weeks one of A B de Villiers, Hashim Amla, David Warner, Aaron Finch, Brendon McCullum, Kane Williamson, Chris Gayle, Moeen Ali, Eoin Morgan, Virat Kohli – and maybe all of them if we are truly fortunate – will play an innings for the ages.
Fearless batting has made the game more distinct from Test cricket, which is a good thing, though the nature of Test cricket has changed too. Players are taking the game to unprecedented levels and, although Test cricket has a few struggles ahead unless more teams take it seriously again, it has never suffered from a plethora of competitive rivalry. It is possible to fear for bowlers, though throughout history they have always found a way of responding even when the game is so obviously geared to the elevated status of batsmen. Do not suppose that they will be led easily to their fate, and they will be assisted by fielding the like of which has never been witnessed on a world stage.
There are ill-informed onlookers who are ready to disparage cricket and the way it is going. But in many ways it has never been in ruder health. In England it is in another period of navel-gazing. It usually is and, while it must always keep an eye on its back, it has usually found a way to survive and prosper.
Victory in one of the first two matches here on the other side of the world would immediately lift the spirits. Indeed, beating New Zealand at cricket next week would be greeted like a triumph against the All Blacks.
The 10th World Cup four years ago was all about India. It was wonderful to follow the progress of an entire nation as their boys advanced. The outpouring of relief and jubilation when they at last won the trophy was something to behold. It will not be quite as obsessive this time. There are not a billion people around for a start, but Australia and New Zealand are ready to put on a show. They have the teams and the organisation to make it memorable.
Of course, it is too much of a good thing, extending until March, but there promises to be a welter of good things along the way, enough to outstrip the torpor.
The competition needs and will receive a surprise or two. England are capable of providing the first of those tomorrow, but it is still likely to be their opponents who claim the trophy.