England have Kenyan success in sight

Hussain's revitalised side aiming to extend upward curve against Bangladesh today

England's cricketers begin the first of their winter assignments here today when they play Bangladesh in the ICC Knock-out tournament at Nairobi Gymkhana, the premier club ground in Kenya. It will be the third game of the competition and Nasser Hussain's team must avoid any complacency if they are not to join the West Indies and the hosts, Kenya, in an early exit.

England's cricketers begin the first of their winter assignments here today when they play Bangladesh in the ICC Knock-out tournament at Nairobi Gymkhana, the premier club ground in Kenya. It will be the third game of the competition and Nasser Hussain's team must avoid any complacency if they are not to join the West Indies and the hosts, Kenya, in an early exit.

Before the advent of central contracts, such a competition - so soon after the end of the season - would normally have been declined by the England and Wales Cricket Board, or if pushed, represented by by a motley ragbag of second-stringers.

Instead, with almost a month's rest behind them, England's best players appear keen to extend their upward curve of the summer, a quest that has already had the coach, Duncan Fletcher, remarking that he cannot remember a group of players working harder.

One of the players to benefit most from the time off is Alec Stewart, whose combined role of wicketkeeper and top-order batsman, at the age of 37, would have seen many off into retirement.

"We've worked hard for three or four hours a day since we landed," Stewart said yesterday. "Central contracts may be controversial, but it's the right decision. We've got a long, hard winter ahead and missing the last few weeks of the season has helped us prepare for that."

With no cricket since the final Test against West Indies at The Oval on 4 September, Stewart has managed to combine a holiday with his usual training programme, something he would not have been able to do had he been beholden to his county, as previous generations of England players were.

"Without central contracts, I'd have been here 10 days after the end of the season," Stewart added. "I know some counties still aren't happy about it, but in years to come it will be seen as the norm. After all, looking after the good of the national side is what the Aussies and everyone else do."

Stewart, who will open England's innings with Marcus Trescothick, has enjoyed a recent run spree in one-day cricket which has included two centuries and a ninety. England, too, have enjoyed recent success and a good showing in the ICC Knock-out will help build on that.

A tied match in their friendly against Australia on Tuesday served some purpose, though England should have won the match, losing two wickets in the final over. Hussain, out of sorts all summer, struck the ball well and was looking akin to his old self when Brett Lee, Australia's express fast bowler, pulled off the first of two brilliant catches to dismiss him.

With $250,000 (£172,000) for the winners, and $150,000 (£103,000) for the runners-up, this contest is not some one-day afterthought. However, England's route to the final, should they successfully negotiate each stage, will require them to beat both South Africa and Australia, two of the foremost one-day sides in world cricket.

First, though, they will have to dispose of Bangladesh, whose will be keen to prove that their recent elevation to Test status is deserved. Although Bangladesh received one-day status two years ago, England turned down the chance to play them in their inaugural Test, a slight that should give the underdogs even more incentive to win.

Bangladesh can already claim a notable scalp, having beaten Pakistan in last year's World Cup by 62 runs. With Pakistan having already won their group, this was a game with a very big question mark hanging over it long before Justice Malik Qayyum's report into match-fixing was made public.

Fix or not, Bangladesh under their new captain, Naimur Rehman, have some talented players. Their best batsman, Mehrab Hossain (the only one to have scored an international one-day hundred), is missing through injury, but Akram Khan and Awinul Islam, both former captains, are exciting strokeplayers.

The new-ball attack of Hasibul Hossain and Manjural Islam is useful too, while Mohammad Rafique's left-arm tweakers will test out England's biggest achilles heel at this level, which is to score at more than four runs an over against spin. With Ashley Giles' calf strain not yet healed, England's spin option will be to use either Graeme Hick or Vikram Solanki.

So far the pitches have been good for batting, but as all 10 games are to be shared across five pitches on the same square, spinners will surely come into their own as the tournament progresses. Robert Croft is on standby, but the official line was that he will not be called upon until England's think-tank have further assessed the conditions.

Nairobi has been gripped by drought, as well as power cuts, for the last nine months, though you would not think it seeing the green oasis of the Gymkhana club. Water is the new oil in this part of Africa and those with bountiful boreholes and a fleet of tankers are the new rich.

Even without the parched surrounds for contrast, the Gymkhana ground is unrecognisable from the one I knew in my youth during the early 70s. Then, players had to make do with a compacted gravel strip covered by a jute mat nailed down along its length to make it taut.

The grass square now in place was laid 25 years ago, though, for this tournament, its preparation over the last 12 months has been overseen by Andy Atkinson, the former groundsman at The Wanderers in Johannesburg. Over the next 10 days they will be exposed to a lot of wear and tear, but Atkinson is confident they will hold up.

International cricket is not unknown in Kenya, though with all 10 Test-playing countries present, there has been nothing to rival the present agglomeration of talent, even in South Africa. As far back as the 50s, touring teams such as the Commonwealth Cavaliers, containing such luminaries as Richie Benaud, Arthur Morris and Ted Dexter would play a few matches before moving on and spreading the game of cricket elsewhere.

This tournament, first played two years ago in Bangladesh, aims to raise funds for doing what Dexter and Co used to achieve on a smaller scale with bat and bonhomie. Judging by the poor attendances for the first two games, television rights - in this case bought by Rupert Murdoch's World Sports Group - are where the real money is being made.

With locals tending to watch it on telly rather than live at the ground, cricket is rapidly becoming a game where the big picture of the live event is being subverted by the small screen.

ENGLAND (v Bangladesh, Nairobi, today) From: N Hussain (capt), A J Stewart (wkt), M E Trescothick, G A Hick, G P Thorpe, C White, M E Alleyne, M A Ealham, A Flintoff, D Gough, A R Caddick, M J Hoggard.

Umpires: D Hair (Aus) and D Orchard (SA).

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