England's progress lifts Fletcher

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The Independent Online

The dust, and there has been plenty of it these past 16 days, began to settle yesterday. England left here in the small hours after six matches, six cities and more than 4,000 coach and air miles in 16 days. They were still taking in the fact that they had come from 3-1 behind to draw the one-day series 3-3 against a side who are formidable at home and contain the world's top batsman. It is believed that Andrew Flintoff, the hero of the final hour, had put his shirt back on.

Without overstating the team's standing or their chances in the World Cup next year, which remain on the low side of slender, it is safe to estimate that they are better than they were on arrival in this country. India are in their group and if England do not exactly find them pushovers now they know that they are eminently beatable, have a captain whose hold on the office is slipping and little time to rectify an alarming tendency to make the wrong choice between panic and composure, which may also amount to the wrong choice of players.

England, for once, appear to have got their selection right or about as correct as the system allows. They have spotted likely candidates and been willing to back their judgement. This is far from predicting that they will be at the Wanderers, Johannesburg 13 months' hence, holding aloft the World Cup. It does not even go so far as to suppose that they can match New Zealand on the next leg of this trip, on which they embarked only five hours after securing their dramatic five-run win here on Sunday. But their progress is undeniable.

After England were dismantled in Kanpur, with India winning by eight wickets with more than 10 overs in hand, it was possible to think of them sliding to oblivion once more. It says much about their character, their determination and possibly a simple human desire to avoid further humiliation, that they came back.

The two close matches in which they did so, by two runs and five runs, can only do them good. Winning the close ones in this form of the game may not be a template for certain success but it sure helps to know you can do it.

India, on the other hand, have merely cemented a reputation for blowing it. The papers here said that if Sunday night's match at the Wankhede could be considered a final – India needed a win to take the series 4-2 – it was the ninth out of 10 the side had lost in three years.

Duncan Fletcher, the team's coach, saw progress too and he is not a fellow given to high-blown claims. "For the first time in the one-day arena I suddenly felt comfortable that we had all the pieces there," he said. "We're now putting the puzzle together. I would like to have won the series and I think we should have won, but we are heading in the right direction.

"We have the right individuals and with one or two additions the one-day future looks quite bright. I don't think that direction has been there for some time. One of the most important things was to win the last two tight games. If we had lost even one it would have been hard to pull it back. These guys can now be confident in their ability. To come back as they did was an incredible achievement. England should have been very proud of the guys who performed for their country." It is worth repeating, incidentally, that Fletcher is not one for getting matters out of proportion.

The reflection was on a team effort, naturally, and this bunch of players appear to be a genuine collective in which mutual trust prospers. Their fielding, while flawed in the number of catches that have gone begging, has been a revelation in other departments. They save runs regularly now.

It was impossible, however, not to dwell on certain individuals. Well, one actually. Flintoff, "Freddie" to all, was prominent with the ball throughout and as an all-rounder in the final two wins. He is an amiable man with star quality. Earlier in the tour Flintoff had recalled going to a press conference in this cricket crazy country and such was the attendance and the jostling for his attention that he said: "I felt like David Beckham." He could easily be cricket's Beckham.

Fletcher rightly dismissed talk of his being the new Ian Botham. For him to be the new Freddie Flintoff has taken some diligence. If he can build on his appearances here, the way he bludgeoned a half-century in the fifth game, carefully constructed a vital 40 in the sixth and kept cool as a bowler in both, he will do for England. The way he ripped off his shirt and swirled it round his head when he bowled Javagal Srinath neck and crop with the fifth ball of the 50th over on Sunday showed a man with zest for life.

"It shows you have to handle players in different ways," Fletcher said. "I think we have handled Freddie very carefully. We've been quite stern with him while we've left him out of the side for a bit, told him he had to come to our party because we weren't coming to his party. The thing I have most enjoyed about him is that he accepted that policy and agreed to everything we said on our terms. It's been enlightening to see his work ethic on this trip which we first saw in Zimbabwe. He has been really good and it shows a little bit of patience sometimes pays off.

"Freddie has worked really hard in the gym and at his game. He is really a very good example for other people who live in their comfort zones. They can look at him and see that if you're prepared to put in the effort the rewards will come."

Flintoff and his pals now have it all to do again in New Zealand where they land today. Again, they will start as second favourites. But now they have a chance.

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