England catch on to the age of the athlete

NatWest Challenge: Solanki and company rise to the occasion as the value of fielding is suddenly brought home
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The Independent Online

Whatever happens now, it is clear that a new and different England have been unleashed on an unsuspecting public. This lot not only bat and bowl. When the legendary early screen siren Greta Garbo first progressed from silent movies, the Hollywood publicity machine came up with a simply effective tag-line to lure the punters, as though it was the eighth wonder of the world: "Garbo talks!" Seventy-odd years on, the England and Wales Cricket Board might borrow the device: "England field!"

The effect, in two matches so far, has been startling. The sight of players performing acrobatic stops and then, marvel of marvels, throwing at and hitting the stumps, has been akin to a revolution. First, they let women into the Lord's pavilion, and now this.

Lord's is the scene today of the third and deciding match in this unexpectedly thrilling NatWest Challenge, the curtain-raiser to another three weeks of one-day cricket. In the past five days, the feeling has grown that the summer has really begun. In addition, England have at last begun to redesign themselves. It has been a long time coming, as the team's coach, Duncan Fletcher, recognised after the overwhelming victory against Pakistan at The Oval on Friday. "We've got athletes in the field, which we've been asking for for some time," he said. "There are really good young cricketers, which makes Vaughny's job a lot easier. He can put guys in any area and know they will do an efficient job."

The apparent suddenness of the change was a touch mystifying, as though the selectors had been saying to their vaunted coach: "Sorry Duncan, you'll have to put up with this bunch of erratic slowcoaches. Athletes? Out of the question." Not least because Fletcher is a selector.

But the advent of a new captain, Vaughny - Michael Vaughan, that is - has coincided with realisation dawning. Fielders can alter the course of matches. Fletcher pointed out that James Anderson might not have taken his landmark hat-trick without a moment of athletic genius immediately preceding it.

"It helps the bowlers, and Jimmy knows he can bowl a bad ball, as he did just before the hat-trick. It was a full toss that was magnificently saved by [Vikram] Solanki. It might not have happened before. One ball like that and four runs releases the pressure, and we might not have been in a position to get the hat-trick."

Fletcher is not in the business of picking players for their fielding first and foremost, however. "Fielding is part of the whole package, and you've got to pick the best package," he said.

Solanki, for one, is part of that package. The way he prowls his territory, usually at backward point, can galvanise a whole team, maybe make them feel so good about themselves that their batting and bowling are similarly affected. The attacking nature of Chris Read's wicket-keeping will also come to play an influential part. When Jim Troughton, another of the newcomers, ran out Shoaib Malik with an adeptly executed low pick-up and throw on Friday, it was clear that England were at last evolving.

Fletcher is being characteristically cautious in his analysis. He might like and encourage exciting cricket and cricketers, but he is not about to become carried away with it. "There's a long way to go. I hate to keep saying it, but we're inexperienced. It's a young side, and we're going to have some inconsistencies."

Doubtless Fletcher will appear to assess his team on the eve of the 2007 World Cup final (oh, happy day), a side he will then have spent four years and 80 matches moulding. Yes, he is likely to ponder, they have a chance - but if only they had more experience.

He could not fail to be upbeat, though, after the way Pakistan had been dispatched in the second match of the Challenge. Having made a decent fist of the first game at Old Trafford when they batted badly, England were in the ascendancy at The Oval from the first ball, with which Anderson took a wicket as a precursor to his later hat-trick.

Pakistan are no walk-over, make no mistake, but England had one of their most convincing victories. The opposition were bowled out in 44 overs, England had 28 overs left when Andrew Flintoff flayed through extra cover the last of his three consecutive fours. That meant that 34 overs went unbowled and that the match was over by 4.25pm. Nobody in the crowd of 18,500 can have felt short-changed.

"When I signed on for an extra year I said there were exciting times ahead, because there are some really good cricketers out there," said Fletcher. "It would be nice to work with a bigger squad of 20 players. In the past we have gone forward and then the next series comes along, and with five or six new players, you've got to start all over again.

"If we had 20 to work with, when some players fall out because of poor form or injury, so others come in, and we're not going back and reinventing the wheel. It's a process of bringing on new technique and thought patterns."

There are encouraging signs that the relationship between Fletcher and Vaughan will be as solid and trusting as that between Fletcher and Nasser Hussain. Whatever his wariness of publicity and the pressure it applies to his charges, Fletcher seems to have the indefinable ability to get them on his side. He likes Vaughan (indeed, Vaughan credits the coach with helping the huge advances in his batting), and paid tribute to his honesty. "At Old Trafford he said it was the batters who let us down, why change the bowling attack."

Not everything in the garden is rosy as the summer gets under way, however, and Fletcher will be aware of it. In four international innings this season, Vaughan, the great new batting star and captain, has yet to make a substantial score. He has not looked out of form, but he has not looked in it either. He needs runs.

Troughton, entrusted with a prestigious middle-order spot, could do with hanging around. Two innings into an international career is not the time to deliver a verdict, but the Warwickshire player will be feeling uncomfortable.

But Marcus Trescothick, like Darren Gough, is back. His batsmanship on Friday afternoon was electrifying. Almost everything he touched turned to gold, or at least four. Of his 86 from 55 balls, 76 came in boundaries. It was compelling stuff, which won him the man-of-the-match award in a vote by Sky viewers. Anderson, narrowly beaten in the poll, could reflect only that it is indeed a batsman's game. And, at long last in England's case, a fielder's game.