England fall short on the world stage
The hosts are ill-equipped to make a lasting impact in Twenty20 as India await
It is possible for England to beat India in the World Twenty20 tomorrow. England must play extremely well and India correspondingly badly. Or someone must have a game so outstanding that not even the collective efforts of the champions could overcome it.
In the shortest form of the game anything can happen. But the class, the form, the experience and the prevailing wind are heading in one direction. On their day any team can beat anyone – the Netherlands against England springs to mind – but on most days differences are magnified.
On Thursday night at Trent Bridge it was possible to feel sorry for England as they succumbed to the might of South Africa. In fielding, bowling, batting and strategy the team so ably marshalled by Graeme Smith and the coach Mickey Arthur was abundantly superior. It was only sport but so immense was the gap that at times you wanted to look away.
And then England resorted to silly tactics, which were almost underhand. Stuart Broad, who bowled intelligently, suddenly pointed to his left as he approached the delivery stride. It was a ploy intended to distract the batsman and it left the feeling that if this was the best England could offer they are further behind than was feared.
The defeat of the hosts was much more shocking than watching a minnow being cast aside by one of the big boys because these were supposed to be two big boys. England won the toss and you wondered afterwards how Smith allowed that. England's dismantling was not cruel but the clinical nature of South Africa's cricket was not easy viewing.
So obvious was the chasm that there was no point in apportioning blame. But it was possible to lament how far England have come in the two years since the last World Twenty20 (not very) and how far they have to go (a long, long way).
Andy Flower, England's coach, said yesterday: "I think it's exacerbated by the nature of Twenty20 cricket and matches can be dominated one way or the other. I also think it's a reflection of where we are as a team. I'm not sure where we are ranked in Twenty20 international cricket but in 50 overs we are around sixth in the world and at the moment that's the level we're performing in Twenty20 as well."
In 2007 at the inaugural World Twenty20, England suffered similar embarrassment at the hands of South Africa being beaten by 19 runs after Albie Morkel came in at number seven and smote 43 from 20 balls. Still, on Thursday night, England were able to pick seven of the team that lost that day. South Africa had five, all of them world-class performers.
Both sides had the same captain but Smith has grown with his side and helped to nurture it. He is a man in easy command. England's selectors turned to Paul Collingwood with cap in hand a few weeks before the tournament. There was nowhere else to go.
There is no more wholehearted cricketer in the whole of England than Collingwood and because playing for his country has been his main mission he was not about to reject the plea. But to appoint him captain in a world event a year after he had given up the job spoke of planning on the hoof. This was a world championship at home in a form of the game that is conquering the world and England appeared to plan for it as if they drawing up a shopping list for the weekend trawl round Tesco.
Flower said: "Our batting performance was very ordinary but I thought our bowling performance was good. If we'd have had a score of 140 on the board with that type of bowling I think we could have put them under some sort of pressure. We can see some of the fielding standards that are being set and South Africa are one of the best fielding sides. They aren't carrying many passengers in the field."
If the players are not skilful enough – and they are not – what does that say about the original Twenty20 championship? The oldest and not the best.
None of this will have much bearing on the Ashes but England have missed the opportunity to captivate a new audience. No heroes have been made so far and two of the so-called T20 specialists Rob Key and Graham Napier, have barely had a look in.
And so to India. They won the 2007 tournament against the odds since when they have taken Twenty20 to new heights. They are full of audacious players who can execute what England could not conceive.
In a one-day series between the sides late last year, India won 5-0 and it would have been seven if the last two had not been cancelled because of the Mumbai terrorist attack. England can win tomorrow but the worry is they will learn another painful lesson. It is part of the mission statement of the England and Wales Cricket Board that England must win a ICC one-day competition. There appears to be no time limit on this – the upside is that they will not have to pay to have the leaflets reprinted yet for a while.
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