'Dark horses' England can rule world
Ignore these ODIs and remember the Ashes. Now final hurdle for Strauss's men is to win World Cup
Sunday 06 February 2011
When this long winter began, England had a list of desires. At its top was the Ashes. A line (maybe two) below was the World Cup. At its bottom, with due regard to sponsors and fans, an entire blank foolscap page separating it, was the series of limited-overs matches against Australia.
In chronological terms, it was sandwiched by the other two events; never was the centre more squeezed. England have played enfeebled cricket this past three weeks but they had already achieved what they had set out for in Australia by winning the Test series 3-1.
The remarkable nature of that triumph is only now attaining clarity: three Ashes wins in Australia, all by an innings. Wow! To ask them to be up for the subsequent matches in the two short forms of the game was like asking Captain Cook to discover the country and then be sure to establish Alice Springs on the way back home.
Indeed, it could be said that England won the short-form match that really mattered to them – the first of the two Twenty20s which meant that they set a new record of eight consecutive wins. The rest has been frittered away by injudicious methods, confused thinking, experimental selection, injuries and attentions turning to the second salient target on their winter expedition.
It is something of a concern that England will now arrive in the sub-continent next weekend in a state of some one-day disarray, a familiar sight on the world stage. Equally,it is also encouraging that they do not appear to be concerned, pretty certain that they can draw a line in the Nagpur dust come their first World Cup match on 22 February against Holland.
Before then they have two warm-up games in Bangladesh, against Canada and Pakistan. The team, having arrived home on Tuesday, depart for Dhaka next Saturday. There may be dull moments as an international cricketer but there are few quiet ones. Andrew Strauss, England's inestimable captain, resisted the suggestion that the defeat by Australia in the one-day series – the tourists were 5-1 down going into the last match here in Perth this morning – would affect their World Cup prospects.
"I really don't [think so]," he said yesterday. "On the surface it would look like it has done, but I have been pleasantly surprised by our batting in three of the games, our bowling in certain circumstances has been excellent as well. We haven't put it together in a package and that is disappointing and it is something we need to remedy very quickly, but we have had a chance to look at some players that we would possibly not have, and a few of our first-choice XI have been rested and will be raring to go come the start of the World Cup.
"I think we have a really good chance out there, we may be dark horses to some extent but that is not a bad position to be in either."
If England could somehow add the World Cup to the Ashes and the World Twenty20, it would be an extraordinary achievement. It would make them early candidates for team of the year, the decade and possibly the century, if that is not being a shade premature. But whatever happens in Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka in the next seven weeks, to have inflictedthree innings defeats on Australia in a single Test series stands alone as a monumental feat of planning and execution. Strauss can already take his place in the pantheon, and to have hung on to his coat tails and listened to his reassuring, stentorian tones at regular intervals around Australia these past 14 weeks has been one of life's privileges.
For him and his players it has meant the fulfilment of dreams. "This has been an incredible tour to have been on, something I feel very proud to have been part of," he said. "Winning the Ashes was a massive thing, but also the manner in which we did it and the way everyone stood up and performed when it really mattered. Regardless of what happens [in the final one-dayer], it is going to be an enjoyable plane journey home.
"I am very pleased our plans came to fruition and they worked as we thought they would. And when I am old and grey – which isn't actually that far away – I will look back on this with great fondness."
The most imperishable of all the golden memories for Strauss and perhaps for entire generations of English cricket lovers is the first day of the Fourth Test at Melbourne. By its end, Australia had been bowled out for 98 and England were 157 for 0. A nation had been stopped in its tracks. "Boxing Day stands out for me," he said. "A huge day in the Australian cricket calendar, the spiritual home of Australian cricket, and to dominate that day so extensively was an amazing experience for us and went a long way to securing the Ashes."
And now for the World Cup. England have to get their injured players well again. There are doubts of varying degrees about five squad members. Strauss and the coach, Andy Flower, have quickly to work out their best strategy and team balance – four or five frontline bowlers.
"A World Cup is a very intoxicating atmosphere," said Strauss. "All the best players in the world are together, there will be a lot of excitement, a lot of looking over your shoulder to see what other teams are doing. I think we will get caught up in that very quickly and it will be very motivating and refreshing for us.
"A few days at home will be good, to get away from the bubble and hotel rooms and all that, but we don't want to have any regrets come the end of the World Cup, saying: 'Ah well, we should have been more motivated, we should have been more energetic.' We all realise this is a great opportunity for us to showcase our skills and we are determined to take that with both hands." And they jolly well might.
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