England's luck runs out as Zimbabwe issue lingers

Australia 229-7 England 224 <i>Australia win by 5 runs</i>
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There was no point in asking the England players after their 13th straight defeat against Australia if they were feeling unlucky. The sort of reversal they suffered in the second final of the VB Series was sufficient evidence to persuade any jury to deliver a verdict that if England had not won that match they never would win.

There was no point in asking the England players after their 13th straight defeat against Australia if they were feeling unlucky. The sort of reversal they suffered in the second final of the VB Series was sufficient evidence to persuade any jury to deliver a verdict that if England had not won that match they never would win.

England had already smelt victory and they were caressing it when the most intimidating of all speed merchants, Brett Lee, roared in to snatch it away as if he were an absentee landlord returning to annexe his territory by force. As they had always threatened to do, Australia won the triangular tournament 2-0. On the way they had lost only one match, to Sri Lanka, and had reasserted their status as favourites for the World Cup.

Yet as England flew to Adelaide yesterday – for what should have been a third final but was instead a meaningless journey in an itinerary that could not be changed – they could reflect well on the manner in which they had conducted themselves. Thirteen consecutive losses to their oldest enemy and only three wins out of 10 in the tournament, all against Sri Lanka, do not sound like immediate reasons for rejoicing.

Nor are they. But if the performance here at the MCG was belated it was also sufficient for England to demonstrate that they do possess resilience and spirit. They took the world champions (probably past and present) as far as they could without prevailing and they did so after one of their heaviest and embarrassing defeats.

It was, too, a proper team performance, from the maligned Andrew Caddick with the new ball to the unheralded Durham batsman, Paul Collingwood, keeping watch on the burning deck as Lee breathed fire at the end. Michael Vaughan and Alec Stewart provided the chief batting components, Andrew Flintoff was back and, praise be, England bowled only one wide.

All of it was conducted with the loud accompaniment of external distractions. England played for at least the past fortnight here with other matters praying on their minds. The Zimbabwean issue trailed them wherever they went. Most of the party could not understand how ubiquitous it was at home, but they were never short of people telling them. Publicly, the players kept saying they would play their controversial World Cup match there on 13 February.

Perhaps it was this as much as the Australian dominance that induced them to ask for a few days back with their families in England before going to the World Cup. Sensibly, they withdrew that request but not before Heathrow-bound flights had been checked and reserved. The perception was everything: they wanted to go home but they could only do so if they lost the second final. The inference was damning.

By the time the second final started that public relations disaster had been repaired. But the Zimbabwe issue was going nowhere. Equally, the likelihood was growing that the players were not going to Zimbabwe. It still is.

Unrest had been growing but it came to a head in players' minds when they received individual letters in the dressing room at Sydney last Thursday. These were four A4 pages each and described the parlous state Zimbabwe is in. The freedom fighting group who wrote the letters also stated that they had infiltrated the International Cricket Council security delegation to the country, though they did not say how or why. They warned that there might be riots during England's scheduled fixture.

This letter must have disconcerted some players but when news of it slipped out – after 48 hours – it burgeoned into something it was not. The BBC talked of threats of violence which did not exist. The freelance news reporter who filed the story did not see a copy of the letter since, if the England camp still had one, they were not showing it.

But the Sydney Letter, as it may become known, served to concentrate players' minds, not least those of the less mature chaps in the party. Conversely, it may not have helped them to concentrate on the first final at the SCG as Australia knocked off a meagre 118 to win in 57 minutes and 12 overs.

The players will still do what the England and Wales Cricket Board tells them to do. If the bosses say play, then play they will. But there has been a clear shift. The players are uncomfortable about going to Zimbabwe now, for safety reasons, for moral reasons, for all reasons.

Although, their Professional Cricketers' Association representative, Richard Bevan, is annoyed with the ECB chairman, David Morgan, for suggesting this, it may well be for the best. The players are not about to strike but this stance is surely painting them in a sympathetic light.

An official statement on their behalf will be issued today. It may not be the last as the players, in their own words newly united after dropping their request to go home, disperse to all parts for three days when they land in South Africa tomorrow. They are about to make their feelings clear.

The ICC is still determined to play its six World Cup pool matches in Zimbabwe and the ECB continues to insist that England will fulfil their commitment. But the players have found their voice and they will be doing their utmost to erode the certainty of the officials' position.

Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, was more relieved than sad yesterday at the defeat by five runs with three balls left. "Zimbabwe is on everyone's minds," he said. "But I don't think there is discontent in the team as far as spirit is concerned. Going to Zimbabwe is an issue between the players and the ECB but the positive sign is that it showed through in their performance. We had a chat after Sydney and we realised we had to pull our socks up. That was not a reflection of their ability."

The return of Flintoff will provide balance and may prove a catalyst. He was not quite match-drilled but he looked lean and fit otherwise on Saturday. Fletcher said it was the hardest tour he had ever experienced. He has another one on the way. The next time England play Australia will be in their last pool match of the World Cup in Port Elizabeth on 2 March. They now have some reason to believe that the 13th reversal was as unlucky as it gets.


Australia won toss

A C Gilchrist c Hussain b Flintoff 26
M L Hayden c sub (O A Shah) b Irani 69
*R T Ponting c Flintoff b Caddick 1
D R Martyn c Stewart b Caddick 11
M G Bevan retired hurt 10
A Symonds b Irani 8
G B Hogg not out 71
S K Warne c and b Irani 0
B Lee c Blackwell b Anderson 18
A J Bichel not out 11
Extras (b3, w1) 4
Total (for 7, 219 min, 50 overs) 229

Fall: 1-39 (Gilchrist), 2-40 (Ponting), 3-56 (Martyn), 4-98 (Symonds), 5-147 (Hayden), 6-148 (Warne), 7-196 (Lee).

Did not bat: B A Williams.

Bowling: Caddick 10-2-23-2 (one spell); Anderson 9-0-57-1 (3-0-26-0, 3-0-6-0, 3-0-25-1); Flintoff 10-0-56-1 (6-0-28-1, 1-0-2-0, 2-0-16-0, 1-0-10-0); Blackwell 10-0-32-0 (one spell); Irani 10-1-46-3 (9-1-41-3, 1-0-5-0); Vaughan 1-0-12-0 (w1).

Progress: 50: 59 min, 84 balls. 15-over score: 56-3. Bevan retired hurt 10 at 78-3 after 19.3 overs. 100: 131 min, 180 balls. 150: 177 min, 247 balls. 200: 205 min, 282 balls. Hayden 50: 137 min, 72 balls, 4 fours. Hogg 50: 69 min, 60 balls, 6 fours, 1 six.

M E Trescothick c Bichel b Lee 0
N V Knight c Symonds b Lee 5
R C Irani c Symonds b Williams 7
M P Vaughan c Ponting b Warne 60
*N Hussain b Hogg 28
A J Stewart c Lee b Warne 60
P D Collingwood not out 25
A Flintoff b Lee 16
I D Blackwell c Martyn b Lee 1
A R Caddick b Lee 4
J M Anderson run out (Gilchrist) 0
Extras (lb7,w4,nb7) 18
Total (224 min, 49.3 overs) 224

Fall: 1-8 (Trescothick), 2-18 (Irani), 3-20 (Knight), 4-88 (Hussain), 5-151 (Vaughan), 6-182 (Stewart), 7-216 (Flintoff), 8-218 (Blackwell), 9-224 (Caddick), 10-224 (Anderson).

Bowling: Lee 9.3-0-30-5 (nb3,w1) (5-0-19-2, 3-0-8-0, 1.3-0-3-3); Williams 10-1-46-1 (w1) (6-1-23-1, 4-0-23-0); Bichel 10-0-42-0 (nb2,w1) (6-0-24-0, 4-0-18-0); Hogg 10-1-41-1 (one spell); Warne 10-0-58-2 (nb2,w1) (3-0-18-0, 7-0-40-2).

Progress: 50: 54 min, 68 balls. 15-overs score: 62-3. 100: 117 min, 161 balls. 150: 152 min, 216 balls. 200: 199 min, 278 balls. Vaughan 50: 95 mins, 68 balls, 5 fours, 1 six. Stewart 50: 69 min, 60 balls, 4 fours.


Umpires: D B Hair and R B Tiffin.

TV replay umpire: S J A Taufel.

Match referee: C H Lloyd

Man of the match: B Lee.

Man of the series: B Lee.