From Twenty20 no-hopers to world leaders in 10 hectic months

Last year's laughing stock, England suddenly look like masters of the short-form game. In St Lucia, Stephen Brenkley charts the rise of Andy Flower's new-look big-hitters
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The Independent Online

All England's carefully laid plans for Twenty20 glory might have been killed at birth. It seems absurd to reflect now that barely a week ago against Ireland they were minutes away from going out of the tournament.

Had the rain relented sufficiently to allow nine balls to be bowled, from which the Irish would have been required to make an eminently achievable 18 runs, that would have been that. It would have been just another English failure at a form of the game they invented, albeit particularly grotesque. Back to square one, tails between legs, must do better.

But the rain kept coming, those balls went unbowled and from a no result match, England secured the point they needed to progress. Today, they will play Sri Lanka in the first semi-final of the third World Twenty20, having executed some of the most clinically efficient, frequently thrilling cricket of the competition.

From that moment against Ireland after they had made 120 on a hopeless pitch, England have rarely ceased to amaze. They have played with discipline, flair and conviction every step of the way in the Super 8 stage of the tournament in matches against Pakistan, South Africa and New Zealand.

There is an element of fortune in Twenty20, created by the concentrated nature of proceedings, but England have made their own luck. The transformation in all forms of the limited-overs game this winter has been dramatic. Ten months ago they were as hapless and unpredictable as ever in World Twenty20 on home soil. Andy Flower, who took over as coach a year ago, has effected a change which eluded all his predecessors over two decades.

England have had their moments in that time, winning series here and there, but their team never at any point seemed durable. Flower, together with his captains, Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood, recognised straightaway that England were going about it the wrong way.

"This is certainly the most powerful England side I have played in," Collingwood said yesterday. "Definitely. When you look at the team, probably going down to No 10 all the guys can hit sixes. And when you look at what the guys are doing with the ball a lot of credit has to go to them because they're thinking for themselves a lot whereas in the past they were always guided by the captain or whatever. But they really are going out there thinking what the opposition strengths and weaknesses are and adjusting fields accordingly. And that has been one of the crucial things in our development."

This seems such a simple procedure that it beggars belief that nobody thought of it before. However, it has been allied to clear strategical thinking based on specific selections. England's policy has been quite plain. Their batting has been based on strong, long hitting from the start and their bowling on ensuring the opposition do not do likewise. Their fielding, by and large, has been stunning, muscular and athletic at once and perfectly intimidating at times.

Selections which seemed a gamble when this tournament began are now clearly the inspired choices of men with a detailed plan who knew what they wanted. Based partly on performances in the domestic Twenty20 competitions over the years (a ploy which has been tried before and failed) they were about style as well as substance. So Michael Lumb, who would not in truth come within a country mile of England's Test team, has been truly effective with his extremely hard hitting at the top of the order.

He may not have hung around for long but England do not mind that. The key is for Lumb and Craig Kieswetter to build a platform quickly, to make statements of intent. Against New Zealand there was a case in point when Daniel Vettori, one of the best Twenty20 bowlers on the planet, joined the attack.

His aim was to stifle England's good start but Lumb responded by twice sweeping him venomously through mid-wicket for four. New Zealand wilted before our eyes.

Lumb and Kieswetter owe their places virtually to innings they played for England Lions against England in Abu Dhabi in February. While they were not quite unsung they were on nobody's lips for places in this Twenty20 squad. When Lumb made 58 in 35 balls and Kieswetter 81 from 66, with their opponents agog at the strength of their hitting, their names were being shouted from the rooftops. Flower acted decisively.

On most days, England can be seen practising the strokes they intend to play and have taken to calling it range hitting. The stands of the grounds are filled with balls hit hard and high against a variety of pace, using a variety of shots.

The work on the fielding is similarly precise and the sheer intelligence of the bowlers has continued to confound. There was a huge difference between the surface at St Lucia for the match against New Zealand and that at Bridgetown for the first two Super 8 matches. But the fast bowlers responded by cutting their pace, producing cutters and slow bouncers, fingers across the seam.

The dual-spin attack has also been instrumental. Graeme Swann sits astride international cricket these days, but his partner, Mike Yardy of Sussex, has been drafted in purely for this tournament. What he does is far from pretty but he has been wholly proficient and as Swann averred the other day, he knows his game inside out.

None of this will make Sri Lanka any less imposing today. They reached the final of the last World Twenty20 in England last year (as, of course, did the champions Pakistan, who meet Australia in the other semi-final tomorrow) and they remain a force. This has been a fitful tournament for them and they were kept in it early almost single-handedly by Mahela Jayawardene.

But when the chips were down against India on Tuesday, they produced a compelling team performance which saw them conjure victory from the last ball after a thunderous final four overs in which they scored 55 runs. The pitch will suit their array of nagging slow bowlers.

England, however, are in an extremely happy place. Kevin Pietersen returned yesterday after the birth of his first child in England and will play. If they were to go down the feeling is it will be in a blaze of glory.

Three inspired picks

Michael Lumb

Having carved out an enduring but inauspicious county career, his power hitting suddenly became exactly what England needed. Has offered no spectacular returns so far but he has played selfless cricket.

Tim Bresnan

Has become more and more accomplished as an international cricketer almost by the hour. His accurate bowling at the start and end of the innings could be vital to England's continued presence in the competition.

Mike Yardy

He was tried in England's one-day team where he was neither outrageous failure nor major success. But his ability to hurl the ball in at middle and leg, giving batsmen few options, has been a feature of the competition.

Match details

Probable England team PD Collingwood (capt), C Kieswetter, MG Lumb, KP Pietersen, EJG Morgan, LJ Wright, MH Yardy, TT Bresnan, GP Swann, SCJ Broad, RJ Sidebottom.

Probable Sri Lanka team DPMD Jayawardene, ST Jayasuriya, TM Dilshan, KC Sangakkara (capt), AD Mathews, CK Kapugedara, NLTC Perera, CU Jayasinghe, S Randiv, SL Malinga, T Thushara.

Umpires Aleem Dar, SJA Taufel.

Pitch report (Beausejour Stadium, St Lucia) Slow, low and possibly designed to strangle strokeplay while taking the pace off the bowling.

TV Sky Sports 1, from 6pm.

Weather Cloudy and warm with a chance of light showers. Maximum temperature: 3C