England must discard L-plates and hit the road to 2007

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The Independent Online

It would be heartening to think that England underwent a conversion on the road from Dambulla last week. That their eyes were opened to the eternal disciplines of one-day cricket, so that they will no longer persecute their followers with exhibitions of staggering ineptitude and will discover the route to the 2007 World Cup final.

The performance that England turned in against Sri Lanka in the first one-day international was the sort designed precisely to have such a dramatic effect. If they do not learn from that, they will never learn. England were chugging along serenely under Michael Vaughan's apprentice leadership. They had won six successive matches, in none of which they had been troubled. In Dambulla, that turned out to be the trouble.

In each of those six victories, England batted second pursuing moderate totals, and in only one of them did they lose more than four wickets (and that was when two fell with four runs wanted). It might be perverse, but it does not give the middle order experience. What England need desperately are some close finishes in which they all bat and six or seven of them bowl.

Only in that way, as Duncan Fletcher will tell us any day soon, will they have a clue what to do. If they contrive to assemble a big win in the third one-dayer today in Colombo after the second was washed out on Friday (unlikely), or if they lose hugely once more (possible), that day will have arrived.

Fletcher is big on the need for experience in international cricket, especially in one-day cricket. His minimum benchmark for knowing the game is 30 caps and his preferred one nearer 50. If it was the old days of indentured apprentices, 30 caps, in Fletcher's mind, would represent the award of a City and Guilds certificate and a banging-out ceremony.

Of the England team which contravened most of the tenets of the one-day game last Tuesday - it was only the third time England had lost by 10 wickets, all in Fletcher's time as coach - five had played more than 30 times, two more than 50.

But that merely reflects what England are doing in building up to the Caribbean in 2007: starting at the bottom of the learning curve and hoping that four years is long enough to reach the summit. Although the display and the result were both regrettable for England last Tuesday, they might still be more comfortable in their climbing boots.

Sri Lanka were exemplary, not least for a team who had been out of action for five months, and took with them into the match 1,513 appearances. Their side included two debutants but also three players with more than 100 one-day caps, three with 200 or more, and one, Sanath Jayasuriya, with 307.

Five of them, therefore, have played more games than England's most capped player of all time, Alec Stewart. What this probably means, however, apart from the fact that Sri Lanka play much more limited-overs cricket, is that they are not yet looking to the next World Cup. By then, five of Tuesday's side will be 35 or more. Sri Lanka are doubtless living for today - and how splendid it was in Dambulla - but it can be a dangerous game. Still, they do not simply talk of the value of experience. Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana were opening the batting together for the 104th time.

England changed their first-wicket pairing after 13 matches. Vikram Solanki was dropped so that Andrew Strauss could become Marcus Trescothick's new partner. Solanki will fail more often than he succeeds: last summer between a glorious hundred and a fifty, in the NatWest Series Final, he scored eight, four, seven and two. England knew what Solanki was about when they picked him and it was not technical propriety.

With due respect to Strauss, who is now writing in these columns (it is often better to have a player-columnist in the team than out of it) and has probably deserved a bash somewhere in the order for a while, there was somebody else the selectors might have thought of trying as Trescothick's ally against the new ball.

Name of Vaughan. He might captain, but he is a natural opening batsman, and never mind the form of the game. The thought persists that all England are doing in not using him there now is losing valuable time in bedding him in.

All is not lost for England, of course. They should forget Bangladesh, which has already been put firmly into context, but they should remember last summer. Eight of the team who played in Dambulla were also in the team who swept aside South Africa at Lord's in the triangular final. On their day, they can do it.

England's cricketers watched the Rugby World Cup final on television yesterday. They will have hoped that is not the closest they will ever get to such an event.