England can be one-day wonders of the World
Amid the hullabaloo, one small matter has been easily overlooked. England have become unusually efficient at limited-overs cricket. Already world champions in the shortest form of it, there is no reason to doubt that they can make it a double in India next spring by winning the original version.
There are several caveats to this, not least of which is coming up against India on their own turf, but the transformation in approach, method and execution has been startling. In the first match of what is known as "the series that nobody wants", England beat Pakistan by 24 runs on Friday.
The second of five matches will be played today at Headingley when England can confidently expect to go 2-0 ahead, a considerable step towards winning their third one-day series of the summer. Therein lies another of those caveats: Pakistan are a team in disarray. It is difficult to see where they might get the huge break they need to win another match on this tour. In some eyes, England's achievement would be diminished by the shambolic state of the opposition.
Sadly, the cricket has been reduced to a sideshow by events off the field. Three Pakistani players – Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamer – have been suspended by the International Cricket Council and are now at home in Pakistan. A fourth, Wahab Riaz, is to be questioned by police. Each day brings supposed new revelations, all prompted by the News of the World sting which entailed the bowling of no-balls to order in the Fourth Test at Lord's.
Since then it has been open season on cricket. Several previous matches, most but not all involving Pakistan, have been called into question, usually because of gut feeling rather than reliable testimony. Calls for this series to be abandoned have been strident and sanctimonious. The England and Wales Cricket Board, for reasons that might not be entirely altruistic, were never about to bow to any pressure for cancellation.
To watch the game at Chester-le-Street on Friday was to be reasonably convinced that continuing with the matches was correct. The Riverside was all but full and the manner in which the spectators reacted to England's composed if not flawless performance suggested match-fixing was not the only thing on their minds.
England, admittedly against bowling which has lost lustre with Asif and Aamer gone, made an unassailable total. In the new wicketkeeper-batsman Steve Davies, whose innings of 87 from 67 balls was from the top drawer, they may have unearthed an authentic international cricketer.
It was heartening that Pakistan made a fist of it. There was the sense, after the horrors of the two Twenty20 matches in Cardiff which left a hollow feeling about cricket's future, that the game was restored. But England were much too good. They dropped a couple of catches, missed the stumps twice with direct throws but such shortcomings are now remarked upon, rather than being routine. Their ground fielding is quick, alert and precise. Everybody seems as though they know what they are doing, the opposite of England's approach to one-day cricket for much of the past 10 years.
The allegations of corruption and the shockingly small crowds at Sophia Gardens have served at least to deflect attention from the Ashes – but they are still imminent. The squad will be named soon and the mood is growing that the fifth seamer's spot will go to Surrey's Chris Tremlett. This might be bad news for Tim Bresnan, who has become part of the squad but not quite made a compelling case.
How wonderful it is to be discussing the vagaries of form, fitness and selection. There is, too, a riveting climax to the County Championship in prospect with Nottinghamshire, Somerset and Yorkshire all playing for the title. Three more reasons for hope and not despair.
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