England are in the quarter-finals of the World Cup. Their place was confirmed yesterday in Dhaka when Bangladesh were humiliated by South Africa. What remains to be seen are who and where England will now play and whether they can progress any further. It is certain that they will play in either Dhaka or Colombo, depending on the outcome of the remaining group games, much less certain that they can go any further in the tournament.
So fitful has been England's form so far, so bereft of the domineering qualities they brought to their under-appreciated triumph in the World Twenty20 last year, that it is impossible to be confident. They are playing exactly as might be expected of a weary team who have been on the road for too long.
It is why the decision to drop three experienced players in the last-ditch match against West Indies last week, while born of desperation, turned out to be a masterstroke. Of course the selectors took a gamble, but they were laying their money on players who, rather than playing too much cricket lately, were desperate to play.
It worked, and perhaps it deserved to. England won by 18 runs and Bangladesh's woeful exhibition yesterday ensured it was sufficient. The likelihood is England will play their quarter-final in Colombo against Sri Lanka (third in Group B playing second in Group A), assuming India beat West Indies today. Should West Indies prevail, England will slip to fourth in Group B and head for Dhaka to play a rampant Pakistan.
Whatever happens from the mish-mash, England must improve rapidly or fail to make the latter stages for the fifth consecutive World Cup. Andy Flower, the coach, said yesterday: "We have underperformed on occasions and I think we have performed really well under pressure on a few occasions as well. What I do like to see in our side is people fighting hard and getting through pressure situations, and on a number of occasions we have done that.
"I think that sort of character and composure under pressure counts for a hell of a lot, but we can't escape the fact that we need to be more dominant at certain phases of the game, we need more consistency, we need top-order runs, and you have seen some really fine bowling from us and some very ordinary bowling from us. We need to improve in some very obvious areas and if we don't execute those skills better than we have done then we won't get through to the final."
Explanations for England's roller-coaster form can all be based on their time away from home. Those who have been with the squad from the start have taken more than 25 flights since they left home in October, and slept in the same number of beds. The debilitating effect has been clear.
If their quarter-final is in Colombo they will have had a welcome respite of nine days between games. It might not be sufficient fully to restore Jimmy Anderson's bruised soul but it might be enough to effect running repairs. It was no surprise that England dropped him (and Paul Collingwood) against West Indies because he had looked so forlorn in the defeat by Bangladesh. Flower is convinced that he could yet return to this campaign.
"He could well have a part to play," he said. "There are a possible three games to go and we know what a great bowler he is. The fact he hasn't hit his straps so far is one of those things but it is not surprising, because he has given his all for us this winter. That is why we pulled him out of the Windies game, but he is a strong bloke and we're lucky to have a few days off. He'll be gearing himself up and pushing for selection in the next game."
Playing him now would be a risk, because there are no second chances. England might equally give a one-day debut to Jade Dernbach, surprisingly called up to replace the injured Ajmal Shahzad on Friday night. Dernbach, who has performed well for England Lions in the Caribbean, was preferred for his extra pace, variety and ability to obtain reverse swing, but the risk of throwing an uncapped player into the World Cup maelstrom is patent.
England will have to be bold and ruthless in selection, which may mean omitting one of the heroes of the crucial win over West Indies, James Tredwell or Luke Wright. Flower and his captain Andrew Strauss will not be afraid to act. "Whichever venue we go to and whichever opposition we face, we've got to deal with it," said Flower. "We've got to look whatever challenge we have straight in the eye and get on with it. There is no preference." The tournament starts anew, England have to be refreshed.