England are now on their way to the World Cup. The journey begins in the throbbing atmosphere of Eden Gardens, Calcutta on Saturday and ideally will end at the hardly less intimidating Wanderers, Johannesburg in March next year. For one to lead to the other, the team must now ascend a learning curve of Himalayan proportions.
There will be no easy route, and the likelihood is that the summit will remain out of reach. England, do not forget, are still poking about the foothills of one-day cricket, when common sense dictates that to have a hope of finding their way to the final in South Africa in 2003 they should have reached base camp a year ago.
At least and at last they seem to have some idea of what their squad might look like. After being revamped during a disastrous summer, they consolidated in Zimbabwe last autumn by winning five matches. Coming after losing 11 consecutive matches, this sequence was not merely welcome but essential. It is imperative that the apparent improvement is continued in this winter's one-day road show. England's programme is packed: six matches in India will be followed by five in New Zealand. They will play a minimum of 26 matches (which could be extended to 30 if they reach various tournament finals) between now and the start of the World Cup, and even that may not be enough.
One-day cricket continues to be disparaged. The playwright and cricket fan Tom Stoppard once said: "I don't think I can be expected to take seriously any game which takes less than three days to reach its conclusion." As it happens he was talking about baseball, but he might as well have been expressing a commonly held view that one-dayers do not quite cut the mustard, old boy.
Nobody can doubt the complex allure of Test cricket, but for a form of the game which is constantly sniped at for being formulaic, the limited-overs version sure takes abundant experience to play well. It provides a range of slightly different pressure points where experience is indispensable. If the commodity can be born as well as made, then examples are rare.
Not for nothing did the likes of South Africa declare two years ago that by the time the World Cup came round they did not expect to have a single squad member who did not possess at least 50 one-day caps. That might be pushing it a bit, because it does not allow for the sudden emergence of untapped talent, but it said much for what the shortened game requires to do well.
If this winter's England squad are also assembled for the South African adventure next year, at least eight of them will not have made it to 50 caps. It would be plain wrong to suggest that the management team of Duncan Fletcher, coach, and Nasser Hussain, captain, have concentrated on rebuilding the fortunes of the Test team at the expense of the one-day team, but they have taken their time with the limited-overs line-up.
England have won 16 games and lost 18 of the 34 one-dayers they have played since the last World Cup. This is a poorer record than it sounds, since 12 of the victories have been against Zimbabwe.
It is not possible to predict that England will beat either India or New Zealand in the series over the next two months. They may, however, have a better chance on the first leg here. True, India are at home in front of fanatical support and they possess rampant batsmen and spinners with the ability to contain. However, they also have renowned fragile characteristics.
Hussain pointed out to a throng of Indian journalists on Friday that India tended to reach finals and lose them. They cracked under pressure, and England intended to exert that pressure. But Hussain is no fool. He pointed out that none of his young team would ever have experienced anything like Eden Gardens, Calcutta and that alone would be an eye-opener.
Indeed, the scenes would be an eye-opener for any English cricketer of any vintage. England have never played a one-dayer there against India. Their only experience of such a match was in the World Cup Final against Australia in 1987. Australia won.
The quality of England's practice session yesterday was determined but lacking. Although the fielding drills were noticeably sharp, the pitches were not good enough to allow the bowlers to come in at full pace, and England have asked for a change from the Calcutta Cricket Club to Eden Gardens for today's outing.
Hussain also made it pretty plain that he now expects to stick with this squad by and large. He had encouraging words, particularly, for James Foster, the 21-year-old wicketkeeper – which in turn made for unwelcome ones for the veteran, Alec Stewart. "We must stick with him," said Hussain of Foster.
The captain is building for the future, and that means refusing to hark back to an unsuccessful past. Except perhaps in the bowling department. Do not be surprised to see the opening partnership of Darren Gough and Andrew Caddick reunited. They have both been missing since the summer, but Gough said yesterday: "We're the second most successful partnership after Trueman and Statham. We've got more to come yet, I can tell you."
Goughy is back. He was asked how he intended to get out Sachin Tendulkar. "If anybody knows, I'm staying at the Taj Bengal Hotel. Ring me."
India, however, are as usual in disarray and dispute. Their captain, Sourav Ganguly, cannot buy a run, and was invited to play in the warm-up tournament between India, India A and India B this week from which their squad will be picked. His first two scores were two and one and he cannot be looking forward to being scrutinised by the bouncer, which is now permitted in one-dayers. Meanwhile Jagmohan Dalmiya, the president of the Indian board, has expressed the board's disapproval of the International Cricket Council's choice of panel for the inquiry into the rulings of the referee, Mike Denness, during the Test match between India and South Africa at Port Elizabeth last October, when Sachin Tendulkar was fined for interfering with the ball.
Dalmiya's suggestions for the panel were not taken up because of unavailability, but he says the ICC refused to consult his board. Considering the panel includes Majid Khan, of Pakistan, a country to whom India are not best disposed at present, and a South African, Louis Sachs, he may have a point. As for England, if they can come through Eden Gardens next Saturday, the Wanderers next March should be a cakewalk.
N Hussain (Essex, capt), A R Caddick (Somerset), P D Collingwood (Durham), A Flintoff (Lancashire), J S Foster (Essex), A F Giles (Warwickshire), D Gough (Yorkshire), M J Hoggard (Yorkshire), B C Hollioake (Surrey), N V Knight (Warwickshire), O A Shah (Middlesex), J N Snape (Gloucestershire), G P Thorpe (Surrey), M E Trescothick (Somerset), M P Vaughan (Yorkshire), C White (Yorkshire).
19 Jan: 1st ODI, d/n (Calcutta). 22 Jan: 2nd ODI (Cuttack). 25 Jan: 3rd ODI, d/n (Madras). 28 Jan: 4th ODI (Kanpur). 31 Jan: 5th ODI (Kanpur). 3 Feb: 6th ODI, d/n (Bombay). 4 Feb: Fly to New Zealand. 8 Feb: v Northern Districts, d/n (Hamilton). 10 Feb: v Northern Districts (Hamilton). 13 Feb: 1st ODI (Christchurch). 16 Feb: 2nd ODI (Wellington). 20 Feb: 3rd ODI, d/n (Napier). 23 Feb: 4th ODI (Auckland). 26 Feb: 5th ODI, d/n (Dunedin).Reuse content