England to come out slugging against holders
India are beatable today but hosts must be bold and have a Plan B
Under Mahendra Singh Dhoni's captaincy, India have become a formidable cricket team. It is a prime example of how not to squander a legacy but to build on it and develop it so that it becomes many times more valuable.
Dhoni was bequeathed his team by Rahul Dravid but the foundations of it were laid by Sourav Ganguly. It was Ganguly in partnership with John Wright who made India a team fit for purpose in the 21st Century. As the scion of the family, Dhoni had become the natural heir.
As with all scions, it might have gone either way but Dhoni has long since demonstrated himself to be a natural leader, at home in all forms of cricket with all types of cricketer. He might be a country boy from a small, rugged town in northern India but he has innate calmness, intelligence and shrewdness. He is a man of the world.
India are strong in all forms of the game. They have an abundance of richly gifted players – they always have – whose talent they are now harnessing. Their coach, Gary Kirsten, is proving to be as pragmatic an organiser of teams as he was a player.
Formidable then, wonderfully assured but not unbeatable. India's defeat by West Indies in the World Twenty20 Super Eights on Friday night showed that. They did not make enough runs, demonstrating that poor starts can affect all sides, and their bowling was plundered by a player in Dwayne Bravo who becomes better and better. The reversal may provide England with their best hope of prevailing today. Until then their mission had looked utterly forlorn.
Against South Africa at Trent Bridge on Thursday, England were outplayed as comprehensively as is possible over 20 overs. They knew it too. There seemed to be no prospect of their defeating India. But the view has changed not because of what England have achieved but because of what India failed to achieve.
England might have talked continually about their belief and togetherness but nothing will have fuelled it more than the scoreline from Lord's on Friday. If West Indies, whose cricket is as low as it has ever been, can beat India, who are supposedly in the ascendancy on all fronts, then anybody can. And anybody, England will now know, includes them.
Thus persuaded, England will come out slugging this evening. Their team selection will test their resolve. If they believe they had it right against South Africa, they will stick to the same XI unless they think that playing two spinners against the side that plays spin better than any side in the world is not worth the gamble. But then there is no real evidence that Ryan Sidebottom, the obvious replacement for Adil Rashid, is in anything like proper order.
England's real difficulties, which they could have seen coming a mile off, lie with the batting, or rather the depth of it. Sides who have cottoned on to the requirements of Twenty20 recognise there has to be a plan B and maybe a plan C in the event that the opening batsmen have to leave early.
It is never ideal in any form of the game but in the case of the host nation this scenario appears to leave them in no man's creek without a paddle. It was grotesque to watch in Nottingham. So England will be desperate for Ravi Bopara and Luke Wright to get them off to a flier. If that happens, anything is possible. But if it does not, it could be time to cover the eyes again.
In picking the squad for this tournament, England made a bold statement about the importance of wicketkeeping. James Foster is the best keeper in the country and possibly in the world but he has not yet had a marked influence on this tournament. The fielding does not seem to have been discernibly lifted and England are barely on the same planet, let alone the same league, as South Africa. But given time he may. He needs time.
However, in picking him and not Matt Prior (or even Tim Ambrose or Steve Davies) they knew their batting would be slightly diminished. Foster is no slouch and his nonchalant six against Pakistan at The Oval was among the shots of the tournament, but can he hit hard and long when it really matters? Maybe he can but to have brought him in at such short notice bespeaks policy on the hoof.
But then England also selected Rob Key and Graham Napier, Twenty20 specialists both, and neither have had a look-in. True, Key played at Lord's when Kevin Pietersen pulled out but he was in the alien position of No 6. Form has had something to do with this but not everything. If England play either of them today it will trumpet desperation not inspiration.
None of this will have a bearing on the Ashes. Australia are holed up in Leicester, waiting and cogitating. But it is deeply disappointing for England to perform so fitfully in a major tournament at home. Shades of 1999 all over again.
To beat India they have to be audacious and hope it comes off. It may not. India are clearly the weaker for having no Virender Sehwag, injured and out of the squad, and despite the admirable ability of Dhoni (left) to be endlessly phlegmatic, they will have been rattled by losing to West Indies.
England could do with it not swinging for Zaheer Khan but then if it does not swing for him it may not for Jimmy Anderson. Stuart Broad is a bowler approaching the top of his game. England need a big innings from one of the top three and Bopara is due a significant contribution.
The maths of the group mean England may yet arrive at tomorrow's match against West Indies with hopes of progress still intact if not flying high. But a win against India, the champions and a side England have played only once at Twenty20 and lost – and have beaten only seven times in their last 25 one-day games – and the rollercoaster ride will be on again.
Four things England must do
Start well England have batted first in all three matches so far, winning one. Perhaps a pursuit might help, though they are wary of being batted out of matters. The first six overs remain vital.
Finish well The last six overs are no less important. Twenty20 has its own rhythm, where the middle overs have become the time for nudging and nurdling, keeping the board ticking. Keeping wickets in hand for a blast matters hugely.
Field tightly To watch South Africa field with what amounts to ferocity is to see a thing of wonder. Of course, they will drop catches occasionally but they will invariably take some stunners. In every match they will make their presence felt. England can hardly imitate but they must learn – and fast.
Think quickly By his own admission, Paul Collingwood is not one of life's natural captains but no man tries harder. His placings and, perhaps as importantly, who bowls when and to whom could decide the course of the match. Mind you, whoever bowls to Yuvraj Singh in certain moods, is a dead man bowling.
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