England amble towards danger

NatWest Series: Pietersen and Gough shine but the gentlest of warm-ups will be of little help for what is to come
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The Independent Online

England began the summer's one-day jamboree yesterday with a crushing victory over Hampshire. It was ideal preparation for meeting Bangladesh at The Oval on Thursday, and useless for meeting Australia any time, anywhere.

After being asked to bat, England made 238 all out with two balls unused, which was not as well as they might have done. Hampshire were dismissed for 85 with 30 overs still at their disposal. It was abject, but it represented a recovery from 14 for 6.

It was a gentle stroll in the park which made England's previous encounters against Bangladesh in two Test mismatches this summer look like gruelling marathons. They are about to start trying to climb Everest backwards.

The first of 13 encounters between England and Australia this 2005 season is here tomorrow, in this country's inaugural Twenty20 international. It will be followed by four matches in the NatWest Series - nominally a triangular tournament, but Bangladesh have not the faintest hope of reaching the final - and three more one-dayers in the NatWest Challenge. There will then be five Test matches for something called the Ashes.

This is NatWest's 25th year of sponsoring one pot or another in English cricket, and if it proves to be their last - negotiations are going on now to extend their contract - they are intent on getting their money's worth as a finale. A coffee-table tome celebrating the modern game, produced with their backing and slickly written, beautifully photographed, would also be an enduring valedictory note.

If the result here, achieved before a crowd of 10,000, was always going to be irrelevant, it was not the work-out that England needed or expected. The other way of viewing such an overwhelming win is that they did what they had to do with ruthless efficiency.

It could not conceal the suspicion that England are still in a haze of uncertainty about what they should be doing in limited-overs cricket. They are continuing the bold exper-iment of using keeper Geraint Jones as an opening batsman. It can be seen why the idea appealed: something novel at the beginning, a player with the spirit to get a move on. But Jones might have made a fist of being a perfectly serviceable No 7, the difficulty of which position in the order England's coach, Duncan Fletcher, bangs on about regularly.

He has been an admirable and enviably successful coach, but a weakness that occasionally reveals itself is a reluctance to concede mistakes. The trial with Jones - and it threatens to be a trial in many senses - could be a blot on his coaching escutcheon. On the other hand, he could have got it spot on - as the impending series might demonstrate.

But it has to work soon, or England's limited-overs strategy will be in something approaching chaos again. Then they might come up with the wise ploy of suggesting that Michael Vaughan open. He is a natural at it because it is where he has spent most of his career, and he has class, for which, as the perky Jones will inevitably find no matter how he does, there is no substitute.

For the past few seasons it has seemed that England have taken a step forwards at one-day cricket only to take another backwards. So they have remained standing still.

One plan has followed another like initiatives, though you would not necessarily be able to tell. It is an up-and-down road. At the start of last summer, they were dreadful and failed to reach the final of the NatWest Series. They then reached the ICC Champions Trophy final, beating Australia on the way.

In South Africa during the winter, however, they again suffered a severe reversal. That series coincided with the advent of Kevin Pietersen. For such occurrences you cannot plan, and if he proves to be England's one-day saviour it will not be down to a carefully plotted strategy.

Without Ashley Giles the bowling looks a shade weak. Giles has not invariably had the faith of England's one-day selectors, but since his renaissance he has been invaluable. In one-day cricket he has gone at 4.33 runs an over, but since the start of last year the figure has reduced to 3.93. That may represent a mere four runs over 10 overs, but if each bowler does that, the wheel starts to turn your way.

It looks as if Giles's absence will be more temporary than was feared if the medical bulletins are not mere propaganda. Meanwhile, Gareth Batty is accruing more international experience. He was pulled out of Worcestershire's Championship match to play yesterday and had to retire his innings overnight. He was not required to bowl. Maybe he should have stayed.

With Andrew Flintoff at five and Pietersen at six, England's one-day side should not be short of an explosive quality. But they still need sense and solidity. They could also do with a fit Stephen Harmison, out yesterday with an ankle injury, to provide some bowling explosives. Equally, they will not wish to show too much of him to Australia.

Pietersen made a seemingly crucial 77 after England fell to 72 for 4. He was less flamboyant than usual but he was in his element once more, as he had been when cutting a swathe through South Africa earlier in the year. Still, the siren calls for his inclusion in the Test team should not be answered automatically. He would affect the balance of the side and perhaps, who knows, the dressing room.

There were welcome runs too for Andrew Strauss, who was eminently sensible. The total looked just enough and proved well beyond that. Simon Jones took two Hampshire wickets in his first over and Darren Gough took a hat-trick in his fifth.

The sides then played a 12-overs-a-side game to offer England more match practice. Umpire Peter Willey withdrew to beat the traffic and was replaced by Terry Brewer, the dressing-room attendant. The newly appointed coach Matthew Maynard acted as England's 12th man. Soon, very soon, it will get serious.