England’s trail to the World Cup final in Melbourne next March begins in Bristol today. Between now and then, if all goes according to plan, they will play 25 one-day internationals.
There has never been such a purposeful period of preparation and it is designed solely to ensure that England can at last avoid the embarrassments that have befallen them in five consecutive World Cups. Since reaching a final they ought to have won in 1992, they have never gone beyond the quarter-finals and have twice been eliminated in the group stages.
It is a miserable record that protestations of good intentions and occasional spells of heady success between tournaments barely excuse. England have never been ahead of the game in the 50-over format, following the trend, never setting it and frequently finding that the rest of the world has moved on to something else. They have been turning up to the party in morning suits to find the others in chinos and polo shirts.
Belatedly, they have called up Alex Hales, the lean, uncomplicated biffer from Nottinghamshire. The delay in his summons to the 50-over game seems to betray England’s continued distrust of the unconventional. Hales might have played at least since the Champions Trophy last year, which would have given him proper experience and England an equally proper chance to find out if he really has what it takes at this level.
Alastair Cook, the captain, confirmed yesterday that he and Hales will open the batting in the series of five matches against India starting at the County Ground today. This breaks up the first wicket pairing of Cook and Ian Bell after 38 matches and a record England aggregate of 1,580 runs together. Bell will presumably move to No 3 which leaves England with a question of balance.
“Alex is a different batter to the other guys,” said Cook yesterday. “He hits the ball incredibly hard and he hits it in different areas, which is what seems to work really well for him. He’s done really well in Twenty20 cricket and now he’s got the chance in five games to show what he can do in 50-over cricket.”
Hales, although a breath of in-form fresh air, may not be a panacea. England have stumbled across difficulties in other areas which they have to address well before the World Cup starts in Australia and New Zealand in February. As part of this they will play five bowlers against India, one of them probably in the all-round spot at No 6. They learned that lesson against Sri Lanka earlier this season when they lost 3-2.
“When we looked back at that series, we found it hard to take wickets in the middle period,” Cook said. “So it’s unfortunate for Ravi Bopara as we’re having a look at a different balance of the side. We’ve got a very unusual seven months of cricket coming up. The aim will be to get a very settled squad before the World Cup.”
Bopara, in other words, has been sacrificed for balance. He can indeed consider himself unfortunate and England will still have few places to turn should they need a sixth or seventh bowler.
Nobody should hold their breath that it will be much different in this World Cup, though at least they are giving themselves the opportunity. The three most recent competitions have followed almost immediately on from away Ashes series. England have arrived invariably exhausted if not beaten.
As a direct consequence, Ashes tours have been rescheduled (which took years of wrangling to agree). Before next year’s World Cup in February and March, England have put all other formats of the game on hold, save for a solitary, apologetic Twenty20 match next month which seems to have been scheduled to fulfil a meaningless fixture obligation.
The road to the MCG starts today against an India side who are in disarray. It will be followed by seven matches in Sri Lanka in November and December and a triangular series in Australia, also featuring India in January. England have an opportunity not only to bond but to conjure a game plan that might lead the world, not follow sorrowfully in its wake. The dressing room is singing in every sense after their comeback Test series victory against India.
On paper, India are the superior one-day team. They are holders of both major trophies, the World Cup and the Champions Trophy and second in the rankings to Australia. But many of them, including their captain, M S Dhoni, have been away from home for months and their recent one-day form out of India, in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand has been poor.
Their loss of the Test series to England after going 1-0 up has prompted a change in the support coaches and the appointment of their former all-rounder Ravi Shastri as team director. Duncan Fletcher will remain as head coach. Confusion may reign though Dhoni seemed to think Shastri’s arrival was for the good.
“It’s good to have him here, he is overlooking operations and giving us his input from the outside,” Dhoni said. “He is a very proud Indian cricketer and at the same time someone who is really positive. But Duncan very much remains the boss.”
England are a mere fifth in the one-day rankings, which betrays their recent modest record but it is not as bad as it looks. Since reaching the final of the Champions Trophy at home last year – another match they should have won – when they seemed at last to have a handle on modern one-day cricket, they have won eight of 19 matches, losing two series to Australia, one to Sri Lanka.
But only six points separate the top five teams in the ratings. If this rightly suggests that there is not much between them, it also correctly indicates that England are just sufficiently off the pace to make it count.
Hales has had to batter the selectors’ door down to make them pick him. There is no time for other changes. Bonding will be the secret. Bristol is as good a place as any to start. It was where W G Grace, father of the modern game, played much of his cricket for Gloucestershire. England may feel the vibe all the way to Melbourne.