England are more pluck than judgement

NatWest Series: Strategy remains a mystery as team balance swings wildly from all-rounders to specialists and back
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It will obviously be useful to England's future one-day prospects that the Government intend to ban smoking in public places. This should ensure that there are plenty of discarded fag packets around, on the back of which the selectors, coach and captain can continue to plot their strategy.

It will obviously be useful to England's future one-day prospects that the Government intend to ban smoking in public places. This should ensure that there are plenty of discarded fag packets around, on the back of which the selectors, coach and captain can continue to plot their strategy.

From the progress that England have made in the NatWest Series, it is difficult to believe that any more sophisticated form of planning has been used. That they are still in with a serious opportunity of reaching the final owes littleto either the balance or the form of the team.

In the first two matches, England, short of at least one specialist batsman, played sequences of ambitious shots in pursuit of some faraway total that would have been realistic only in Neverland. In the third, desperate for a win, they took an outrageous gamble by playing only three bowlers and were hugely indebted to Stephen Harmison for once more bowling with the speed and force of a hurricane.

Michael Vaughan, the captain, conceded yesterday that having examined the Bristol pitch, England were considering taking a similar risk in the match against New Zealand today. Since he also admitted that the team tried to revise their target score in the first two matches after they had started, perhaps they should avoid putting too much trust in their pitch-reading abilities. This felony was then compounded by a failure in communication from dressing room to pitch, hence the ill-chosen strokes.

For a team who are playing Test cricket so auspiciously - with boldness and resilience - their defective one-day planning is as difficult to understand as it is to forgive. Barely a fortnight has passed since the chairman of the selectors, David Graveney, outlined the selection objectives. The aim, in the case of the one-day team, was to "build the best possible team for the next World Cup." This is appropriate, and it is also therefore to be expected that England will lose matches on the way. But they could still help themselves. There are several points on which to take issue.

After the recent 2-2 draw in the one-day series in the West Indies, Vaughan said that his team needed another front-line batsman. He said it in a way suggesting that if anybody present knew of somebody they should let him know soonest. Yet at the start of this series, minus the talismanic Andrew Flintoff, they went in with Geraint Jones, their new wicketkeeper, at No 3.

Jones had never batted so high in a one-day match for his county, Kent. He has great self-possession at the crease, although he is for the moment limited in his shotmaking, but he was not a success in the first two matches. His unlikely promotion was sadly inevitable, because the selec-tors had made so much of his flexibility in the batting order when they dropped Chris Read.

Either this has led to their being reckless in tampering with the national team or they have abandoned a genuinely bold experiment prematurely. The pundits have been shrieking, but pundits are paid to shriek, selectors are paid to select and amid the welter of criticism to stick by and preferably explain their thinking. Sometimes, like governments, selectors have to risk being unpopular in the short term for the long-term good of everybody.

In the case of the batting order, they have done no such thing. Instead, they quietly dropped Jones down the order to No 7, a position to which he is probably more suited but one which he will have to start learning at inter-national level, and brought in Robert Key at three. Key deserves his go, but nobody seriously believes that he as been brought into the one-day team for anything other than preparing him for the resumption of his Test career.

Then, there was the call-up of Andrew Flintoff, who had withdrawn from the squad at the start of the series because of a heel injury. But the selec-tors decided he was fit to bat, if not to bowl.

Apart from playing footloose and fancy-free with Flintoff's precious fitness, it also meant they were forced into their three-front-line bowler strategy. It makes you nervous to think about it, never mind to look at it.

Marcus Trescothick was used as the fifth bowler in a one-day international; in all cricket in the summer of 2003 he did not bowl a single over, for which there might just be a reason.

This puts immense pressure on Harmison to perform. He is a magnificent bowler now who has come to the fore in the one-day game every bit as incisively as he has cut a swathe through Test cricket. But he needs careful handling and rest. In their search for a quick fix, England appear to have quickly forgotten their promise to nurture him. It is as well that Harmison for the moment simply wants to bowl, but they had better watch it.

There also remain the shenanigans over all-rounders. Duncan Fletcher, the coach, has long made it his mission to build a one-day side around them, and to go on looking for them wherever they might be found.

He pleads that they be given an opportunity to gather enough experience to learn the game. Fair enough, but Fletcher appears to have novel way of identifying all-rounders. Look at the body shapes of, say, Ian Blackwell and Anthony McGrath, and you will get the drift.

It may be that picking five batsmen, four bowlers and one all-rounder plus a wicketkeeper batsman is not an unreasonable starting point for any team. In the dash to meet their coach's wishes, England are being saddled with players who look as though they may not be up to it in any part of the game. Marlon Brando's obituaries remind us that they coulda been contenders. Some all-rounders who could field would do for a start. Maybe the coach will be proved right. Maybe not.

Vaughan also touched yesterday on the mental mess probably provoked by the team's inability to win batting first. The statistics are bizarre. England have lost the last eight matches in which they have batted first, the rot having set in at the last World Cup, when they had Australia at 130 for 8 chasing 203 and lost. Equally, they have won the last 12 batting second.

Ignoring any trends, Vaughan admirably said: "Maybe we have just become better at chasing than setting but I still believe in batting first, getting runs on the board and putting pressure on the opposition."

That will not be done until the right balance and tactics are found. With the Champions Trophy, the mini-World Cup no less, happening in England this September, they had better get to work on the fag packets now.

Pick 'n' mix Five England one-day might-have-beens...

Kabir Ali

Some day soon, the great, anticipated influx into the England team of players of Asian descent will take place. Kabir may yet return as a standard bearer, but he has it all to do. The Worcestershire swing bowler last year played one one-dayer in which he did not bowl, one Test in which he took five wickets and was then jettisoned. A hernia operation delayed his season's start. Doubts over pace and will need a year of sustained form. For now, others, notably Sajid Mahmood, have overtaken him.

Chris Read

England seemed to have found that improbable blend: a top-class, fast-handed keeper and a shot-maker with an array of improvisations. Then they chucked him. Maybe Read's face did not quite fit and in his replacement, Geraint Jones, they have a classy presence at the crease, but without the unorthodox big hits. Read has every right to feel hard done by, though Jones is a hugely popular presence. But what it means most of all is that the team had to start all over again.

Owais Shah

A talent, it is judged, which is on the cusp of being wasted. Shah was a prodigy for whom the big-time tolled when he was in the England A side at just 18. His 15 one-day appearances were fitful and though they revealed outrageous strokes others could but dream of, they also bespoke profligacy. In Andrew Strauss's absence, he was made Middlesex captain this season and then was pretty soon deprived of it. He is still only 25, and whose fault would it be if his time has already come and gone?

Vikram Solanki

Dozens of his youthful peers had him down as the player to watch. Has had two England one-day careers three years apart. A stirring sight in full flow: his only century - against South Africa at The Oval last summer - was wonderfully flamboyant. But failure to curb indisciplined batting cost him dear. Scores of 10, 0 and 1 in Bangladesh persuaded selectors that enough was enough for a second time. There may not be a third. His breathtaking fielding - up there with Paul Collingwood - is badly missed.

Jim Troughton

Caught the eye in a dashing cameo in the last Benson & Hedges Cup final in 2002 and then a reasonable beginning to last summer propelled him into the one-day team. He floundered badly, looking nervous and short of authority, and hindsight showed that he was picked too soon. It may be that the salutary experience will make him a better bet next time, but he is having a moderate season in a winning Warwickshire team. Still, another electrifying fielder has been short-circuited.

...and one never-was

Mark Butcher

England's admirable Test No 3 perfectly fulfils a traditional role in sport: it is much better to be out of the team and seen as a potential saviour than in it where you could fluff it. It still takes some believing that since Butcher's Test debut in 1997, and after 69 caps in all, he has still not made a single England one-day appearance. But then he has never been perceived as a one-day player. This England may be clearly short of batting, but at the age of 32 Butcher must now be too old to pick.