England setting out on journey of rediscovery

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The Independent Online

It has not always been the England team's nature to admit the need for extra work in one-day cricket, but that is what their forthcoming tour of Zimbabwe represents. Stuck on a losing streak of 11 games, the worst ever in their history, they leave this evening, ignoring the political furore over illegal land grabs by war veterans, for five one-day international matches and a fact-finding mission that may yet confirm more bad than good.

Hastily organised as this trip was, at the end of the most hectic international season, it is being touted as vital preparation for the next World Cup, due to be played in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya, during February and March 2003.

With that date in mind, five uncapped players and four with fewer than 10 caps to their names, will be shepherded by more experienced players – hence Graham Thorpe's return after Craig White's late withdrawal with a twisted knee – in the hope that they will return wiser and better versed in the wiles of the one-day game.

There are no guarantees. Under their coach Duncan Fletcher, England have made genuine progress in the last 18 months, but not in this form of cricket. In fact, they appear to have gone backwards, and Thorpe apart, the middle order still lacks the calm expertise needed to chase runs as the overs run down. Mind you, it still took a tame performance against Australia and Pakistan last summer to prompt the kind of action that should have been forthcoming after the hapless performances in the last World Cup two years earlier.

Instead of blooding youth en masse and throwing caution to the wind, a typical bout of head burying on the parts of the selectors, has caused England to fall further behind the leading sides. The oft-cited reason for this state of affairs, is a lack of one-day cricket compared to other sides. It is an excuse that has been used since 1985, yet in the interim England have managed two World Cup finals and have beaten every side in world cricket.

The rot is recent and with England cricketers actually playing more one-day cricket than ever before, it has more to do with declining standards at county level despite Middlesex's win over Australia earlier in the summer. With lower standards, the shortfall is not in quantity but quality, especially amongst younger players, whose naivety or lack of progress, have been all too apparent when they make the move to the highest level.

Two prime examples of this are Andrew Flintoff and Durham's Paul Collingwood. Flintoff, who appeared to shelve his abundant talent last season, scored a brilliant 84 to help beat Pakistan in Karachi a year ago, the last time England won a one-day match.

Speaking yesterday, Flintoff revealed how he'd sought to remedy his absence by seeing a leading sports psychologist. "It would be easy to say I've not had the rub of the green last season, but I think you have to look at yourself," Flintoff said. "I've changed my bowling action and I'm fitter than I've ever been. Zimbabwe is a second chance for me and I'm hoping to rectify things when I get there."

The slow pitches in Harare and Bulawayo, the two venues, should suit Flintoff's power. With more matches a reality, a one-off performance like Karachi, unless it is a final, is not much use. The best players perform to expectation in 70 per cent of games. That is what Fletcher must drum into the likes of Flintoff and Ben Hollioake, another whose talent would better serve England's cause if it was glimpsed more often than a solar eclipse.

Collingwood's case is different. One of the best young players around at county level, he looked totally bewildered when pitted against Australia. Like many new players, he needs to feel wanted within the team, no easy thing when opponents are pulverising you.

A fine fielder, Collingwood is just the kind of multi-faceted all-rounder Fletcher favours, though his bowling appears a little too friendly for this level. Yet, fads and fashions pass quickly in one-day cricket and the pitches for the next World Cup, especially the ones in South Africa, may benefit specialists and technicians rather than bits and pieces all-rounders.

Providing no-one feels distracted by the human rights abuses currently going on under Robert Mugabe, opportunities abound for all. Indeed, with half of last summer's first choice side being rested, the likes of wicket-keeper, Jamie Foster, Owais Shah and Matthew Hoggard are ideally placed to state an early case for the one-day series against India and New Zealand next year.

The situation appears to be fluid and if you were to pick the certainties for the next World Cup, only Thorpe and Marcus Trescothick would make the list. Even Hussain cannot be guaranteed a spot, which is why players like Mark Ramprakash and Chris Silverwood, who both last played a one-day match for England in 1998, have plenty to fight for.

Making strong judgements for the future will also be difficult, compounded as they will be by the host's limited standing. Yet, if seeing England home with a run-a-ball fifty against Dirk Viljoen and Bryan Strang will not mean as much as doing it against Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, little seeds may be sown.

ENGLAND IN ZIMBABWE 2001

SQUAD

N Hussain (Capt, Essex); P D Collingwood (Durham); A Flintoff (Lancashire); J S Foster (Essex); A P Grayson (Essex); M J Hoggard (Yorkshire); B C Hollioake (Surrey); R J Kirtley (Sussex); N V Knight (Warwickshire); M R Ramprakash (Surrey); Owais Alam Shah (Middle-sex); R J Sidebottom (Yorkshire); C E W Silverwood (Yorkshire); J Snape (Gloucestershire); M E Trescothick (Somerset); G P Thorpe (Surrey). Coach D Fletcher; Assistant Coach T Boon; Operations Manager P Neale.

ITINERARY

Thu 27 Sept: Arrive Harare. Mon 1 Oct: Warm-up v Zimbabwe 'A' (Alexandra SC); Wed 3: First one-day international (Harare Sports Club); Sat 6: Second one-day international (Harare Sports Club); Sun 7: Third one-day international (Harare Sports Club); Wed 10: Fourth one-day international (Queens Sports Club, Bulawayo); Sat 13: Fifth one-day international (Queens Sports Club, Bulawayo); Sun 14: Depart Zimbabwe; Mon 15: Arrive England.

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