Fletcher seeks moral and morale

Building of Team England leaves coach counting the plus points from arduous adventure
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The Independent Online

The whirligig has reached its final stop on the subcontinent. It must start spinning again in New Zealand next week, but that will be a different world.

Six cities and six matches in 16 days and day-nights in this country was always a schedule from hell. Some of England's players may have thought that is precisely where they were headed when they read the itinerary, but in hell they tend not to treat you like gods. Everywhere they have gone, the team have been fêted, interviewed, gawked at, autograph- hunted to within a whisker of repetitive strain injury.

It will not be like that in New Zealand (it is not like that in England), where two men and a sheep, or perhaps the other way round, will form the welcoming committee, and maybe the crowd at some games. The players may not miss it until it is no longer there.

But they are tired, no question, and they have every right to be. Had England lost or tied a close game in Delhi on Thursday they would be going into the final match in the Wankhede Stadium this afternoon having already lost the one-day series and depleted in body and mind. As it is, they won by two runs.

That slender margin means that they will pitch up in high spirits, ready to perform before another impassioned audience, believing not that they have India's measure but probably disbelieving that they have pushed them so far.

The home side, on the other hand, who have had to tolerate exactly the same journeys, hotels and greater demands, may have been drained by the narrowness of their defeat.

There will be one formidable hurdle for England to overcome one last time. This thriving place, the commercial heart of India, is the birthplace and home of India's most revered player. No, not Ajit Agarkar, adept all-rounder though he is proving to be, but Sachin Tendulkar.

He is always run-hungry, but his appetite today will be veering towards ravenous for two reasons: he is an idol playing on his home turf, where he has scored only one of his one-day centuries, and that is one more than he has ever scored against England. The worry persists that he will eventually put that record straight in the World Cup first-stage match between the sides next year, but he will be trying like billio today. If Tendulkar reaches three figures, the odds are that India will win, as they have done on 24 out of the 31 previous occasions.

An English defeat and therefore a 4-2 loss in the series would not be a disaster. Given their ignorance of low, slow pitches and their general callowness, it is perhaps all they could have reasonably expected. Duncan Fletcher assessed yesterday that victory at the Wankhede and 3-3 in the series would represent a moral victory. Fletcher has made much of England's inexperience, but he would do well to remember that India too are experimenting. Four players apart, they are certainly not Australia.

Fletcher was in an irritable mood, and impassive man though he is, the signs were that he too is feeling the strain of life on the road and with a hectic programme with which he disagreed. Fletcher has done nothing wrong diplomatically, but his hosts have not warmed to him as they have Nasser Hussain.

"We were heavily criticised for our inexperienced side when we came out for the Test series and it was going to be a walkover," said Fletcher. "We came back very well there but then took a bigger mauling before we arrived for the one-day series and we were going to be knocked over 6-0. It shows the character of the side and 3-3 would be quite an achievement."

Fletcher made no tall claims for his squad. But he reflected on their camaraderie – a commodity he prides himself on instilling into players – and their improvement. All he wanted, he said, was for the graph to keep going up, the idea being presumably that it reaches its apex by the time of the World Cup.

England are still slightly at odds with their planning, however, as though the whole business of one-day cricket remains alien to them. For the first time last Thursday they scored what might be described as enough runs. But they did so – after Nick Knight's splendid and underestimated century – only because Andrew Flintoff indulged in some educated big hitting. At last he came off, and made 53 in 39 balls.

Flintoff, who was at No 6 on the card, came in at four. This shows flexibility, yet before this series started and before every series has started, Fletcher has made much of the need for batsmen to bed down in their respective positions so they know what different situations they will face in matches.

If the shuffling of the order is at odds with that it also reflects on the susceptibility of the middle order. The opening pair of Knight and Marcus Trescothick are as good as England can have had since one-day cricket began to grow up. That cannot be said of numbers three, four and five, which on paper reads Nasser Hussain, Michael Vaughan and Graham Thorpe. Accomplished players all, but collectively not quite right for the job at hand. As a trio in the early middle-order in limited-overs cricket, the Beverly Sisters might inspire more confidence. They would surely have more variation.

Thorpe, England's best batsman and crucial to keeping a one-day board ticking over, has been underused. Pushing him up the order would achieve little. Whatever has happened here, over time No 5 is the fulcrum of the batting line-up.

As captain, Hussain is temporarily indispensable to his team. He has infused this bunch with his pride, his drive, his will. He will continue at three but it is a struggle, whatever he says.

Vaughan deserves a run – though Fletcher understandably mentioned the desire to give the forgotten Owais Shah a game. Yet the present three, four, five would probably have more chance keeping a fish alive than winning the World Cup.

It was heartening to see Andrew Caddick back in the side on Thursday. When he was flayed for 27 runs off his first three overs he (and we) feared the worst. But he unfurled a beauty to get rid of Tendulkar and that was as much a turning point as any. Ashley Giles bowled soundly under pressure. Pressure. That is what this England are learning to cope with. Pressure of travel, of too many games, of fervent crowds, of expectation.

It has shown most in their fielding. This is the most proficient fielding side England have had. Where India forfeit 10 runs or so through indolence or carelessness, England are saving that many. It makes a difference to the way the whirligig turns. New Zealand here they come.