England seek a flying start from Pietersen to get them up and running
Tuesday 22 February 2011
As trip wires go, it lacks the element of surprise. But the fact that England have fallen flat on their faces once before when confronted by the Dutch national cricket team is no guarantee against them again coming a cropper in Nagpur today.
"It underlines the point that you cannot underestimate teams like the Netherlands," said captain Andrew Strauss when asked about England's last-ball Lord's loss to the men in orange during the 2009 World Twenty20. "They have played a lot of cricket now and are a side with some obvious strengths. We need to be good enough to overcome those. If we are 10 per cent off and they have a good day, we're in trouble."
Bas Zuiderent, the former Sussex and now the Netherlands' most experienced batsman, agreed. "There is massive belief in our team that we can beat them," he said.
Whatever happens today, England's attempt to win the World Cup at the 10th time of asking will not be made or marred. Such is the format of this competition that big boys can lose to lesser lights at the group stage and still finish in a top four qualifying spot.
Being beaten, however, would leave only the minimum of margin for further error. And, in any event, a team that quietly fancies its chances of spreading a thick layer of icing on top of that perfectly created Ashes cake should not just put the Dutch in their place but do so with some style.
New Zealand, thumping Kenya by 10 wickets, Sri Lanka – crushing Canada by 210 runs – and Australia, overpowering the Zimbabweans, showed the sort of ruthlessness that has generally eluded England when up against small fry. Embarrassing losses have been few and far between but, generally, they make heavy weather of their task and, as a result, confidence levels take a hit.
England will hope to avoid any nervous moments today. But as for their chances of making a real impact over the next six weeks, it is difficult to know whether to feel optimistic about their prospects or simply resigned to witnessing another disappointing campaign to follow those let-downs of 1996, 1999, 2003 and 2007.
The captain is not one for finding his way onto the nearest rooftop and then shouting the odds. He spoke in measured terms before the Ashes series and did so again last night.
"Everyone is fit and healthy and ready to go," said Strauss, who indicated that a decision over whether to play No 1 spinner and new father Graeme Swann against the Dutch would be left until this morning. Swann arrived in India on Sunday following his paternity leave but the rest of the party were together in Bangladesh for a week.
"The six days we had there were really good in terms of preparation for the tournament. We were quite buoyed by our performance against Pakistan [a 67-run, warm-up match victory to follow the considerably less impressive 16-run win over Canada]. "It was a frustrating two or three weeks in Australia [losing the one-day series 6-1], with some key performers injured at the wrong time and not playing smart cricket. So it was reassuring to play the way we did against Pakistan."
Stuart Broad – bursting with energy and intent once again after having his Ashes tour cut short by injury – was the star act of those two practice games, taking five wickets in each. And Matt Prior produced a pair of promising innings at No 6. But the main talking point has been Kevin Pietersen's new job at the top of the order, a role which will continue to attract attention for as long as England remain in the tournament.
England have done very little to make opponents sit up and take notice during the last four World Cup campaigns (we can probably discount the tactic of opening the bowling with spinner Richard Illingworth in the 1996 quarter-final against Sri Lanka as he went for 72 off 10 overs and the game was lost with nine overs to spare). But the Pietersen ploy will cause a bit of head scratching.
It should not matter too much either way whether Pietersen piles in against the Dutch today. But if he can get a real feel for the job – and there were signs that he was doing that while making 66 against Pakistan last week – then England could be on to something (as they were when Ian Botham opened with a fair amount of success during the 1992 tournament).
There is plenty to be said for opening the batting in one-day cricket when the ball is hard and the field is up. But knowing when to attack and when to defend has not always come easily to Pietersen, to put it mildly, so watching him trying to weigh up situations should be fascinating.
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