If you are one of those who feel that today's General Election is a foregone conclusion, a marginally less clear-cut three-horse race begins today at Edgbaston where England play Pakistan in the opening one-day match of the Natwest Series. Australia also compete and start as overwhelming favourites despite their defeat against Middlesex at Lord's on Tuesday.
Being one-day cricket, the thrills and spills are accompanied by extraneous razzmatazz. In the day/ night match today, England will take the field to the music of The Great Escape, an appropriate choice given that they will be without their opening bowler, Andrew Caddick, for at least their first two games.
Caddick has a back strain he picked up in the second Test against Pakistan at Old Trafford and hopes to be fit for the match against Pakistan at Lord's on Tuesday. His replacement will be Matthew Hoggard, who yesterday took four wickets for Yorkshire against Kent. Hoggard will stay with the squad until Caddick is fit. Pakistan's dramatic win in the Test will have given them a lift and England will have to ensure there are no lingering blues from either the defeat or the fractious atmosphere that accompanied their second innings, when the sledging threatened to usurp the drama of the cricket.
"Words were exchanged between some players," confirmed Alec Stewart, the stand-in captain, at Edgbaston yesterday, but neither he nor any of the television gizmos could enlighten us as to what they were. "There were probably a little more verbals than normal, but the relationship between the sides is fine and a few of us went out with Waqar Younis after the game on Monday.
"Mind you, I think Graham Thorpe had it right when he reckoned that anything can be said between balls, but not when the bowler is running up. That is the time to respect the game and be silent."
Stewart will have mixed memories of captaining England at Edgbaston. Losing to India here in the World Cup was a career low, but Stewart did score a century against Zimbabwe here under lights last year. On that occasion the illumination was not good and Warwickshire have added two more pylons of floodlights to brighten the scene.
The unpredictability of one-day cricket, and in particular the loss of important tosses, makes even the best sides vulnerable, as Middlesex's youngsters proved. Over six matches though (each side plays the other three times after which the top two contest the final), Australia's depth and variety in both batting and bowling, and the fleetness of their fielders, should be decisive and they will almost certainly contest the final at Lord's on 23 June.
The team that will meet them is less obvious, although Pakistan probably edge England as second favourites on recent form. In home conditions England ought to prevail, but in the last World Cup they exited after the first round.
Under Duncan Fletcher, one-day cricket has been neglected in favour of producing a combative Test outfit, and it has showed. In Sri Lanka, albeit in unfamiliar conditions, the one-day tactics looked staid and predictable. Even last summer's victory, over Zimbabwe and West Indies, was not achieved without the odd hiccup against sides nearer the sparrow-end of the world pecking order.
The middle overs the passage of play between the 20th and 40th overs are arguably the most important and have long posed problems for England with bat as well as ball. Both Australia and Pakistan possess players capable of making a quick acceleration here, or taking a few key wickets there, and then seeing any advantage through.
Among the batsmen, England have only Thorpe of proven pedigree in that role, although his Surrey team-mate, Alistair Brown, has been brought in to bolster the middle order and ease the passage from good start to slog, where so many England innings go awry.
Brown is inexperienced in that position, and compared with Australia who have Steve Waugh, Michael Bevan and Ian Harvey and Pakistan who can boast Inzamam-ul-Haq and Yousuf Youhana England are something of a one-man show.
The bowling is similarly light. When fit, Darren Gough and Andrew Caddick are fine new-ball exponents, with Gough an even cannier operator at the death. In the middle, however, Mark Ealham, Alan Mullally and Robert Croft possess little of the mystery that Shane Warne or Saqlain Mushtaq can conjure. Unless a batting line-up is already under pressure, they can be comfortably milked, a situation that places even greater pressure on those bowling at the end.
England's best chance of reaching the final is to play on pitches tinged with green. Their matches, except those against Australia at Old Trafford and The Oval, will be played on surfaces with a tendency to have "a bit in them" at this time of year. A lucky toss will be required, though.
The result of this triangular will count towards the final seedings of the 2003 World Cup. Providing England's ambition is to peak for that, any seeding will be irrelevant. To reach the final, teams will have to either overcome Australia or South Africa, the most likely top seeds. For the England squad, the next two weeks will provide a useful preview of the standards required.
ENGLAND (from): A J Stewart (capt, wkt), M E Trescothick, N V Knight, G P Thorpe, A D Brown, M P Vaughan, B C Hollioake, P D Collingwood, M A Ealham, R D B Croft, D G Cork, D Gough, A Mullally, M J Hoggard.
PAKISTAN (from): Waqar Younis (capt), Saeed Anwar, Shahid Afridi, Faisal Iqbal, Abdur Razzaq, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Yousuf Youhana, Younis Khan, Azhar Mahmood, Imran Nazir, Rashid Latif (wkt), Wasim Akram, Saqlain Mushtaq, Shoaib Akhtar, Shoaib Malik.Reuse content