Six days to change the world

England enter a crucial stage in their tour and development with the jury still out
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The Independent Online

By this time next week the final judgement will be handed down on England's long tour. The jury will then have all the evidence it requires for a verdict because the fortnight in Zimbabwe afterwards is a separate issue. Plenty can happen in the next six days to influence its opinion, to persuade it to call for clemency instead of starting a charge to be first at the gallows, which is usually the case at this stage of England's proceedings.

By this time next week the final judgement will be handed down on England's long tour. The jury will then have all the evidence it requires for a verdict because the fortnight in Zimbabwe afterwards is a separate issue. Plenty can happen in the next six days to influence its opinion, to persuade it to call for clemency instead of starting a charge to be first at the gallows, which is usually the case at this stage of England's proceedings.

Win two games in the next six days and they will not only have lifted a trophy (a simple enough action but one in which most members of the team are so badly versed that they will not know whether to use one hand or two), they will also be deemed to be on the way back to glory. Lose the first and there will probably be no second and therefore no trophy and glory will be a remoter place than ever. The hands they should worry about in that case will belong to their long-suffering followers and may have two fingers popping up from them.

Both would be misguided reactions but the way of 21st-century sport in general, and the weariness with the continuing failure of England's cricketers in particular, make them certain. Nasser Hussain, the captain, and Duncan Fletcher, the coach, who have been almost wholly entrusted with the running and the ethos of the team know enough by now to ignore the siren calls and plaintive voices.

Whatever happens this week (and victory in the one-day series would do us all good) the truth is that England are still a moderate side being refashioned for greater things. All three countries in this competition have proved to be well matched and competitive but they are not synonyms for formidable.

England are learning about this one-day stuff all over again. When they take the field against Zimbabwe at Centurion Park (which lies, incidentally, as people keep asking, between Johannesburg and Pretoria) on Wednesday they will take with them the experience of between 340 and 370 caps, depending on the team's composition. The opposition, on the other hand, will have around 750. If it is tempting to feel a tinge of sympathy at reading that statistic because experience counts for so much in the abbreviated game, then do not. Save it for deserving causes like whales, rain forests and all English wrist spinners. England have only themselves to blame for not having played enough matches and not identifying and then trusting a bunch of players to grow together.

This means that whatever Zimbabwe are confronted with they will have faced before and respond accordingly. Not so, England. On paper, England should be clear victors and claim a place in the final next Saturday but Zimbabwe have screwed that up and tossed it into the wastepaper basket six times before. It is not they who will be apprehensive on Wednesday. In a way, they have nothing to lose. England, rebuilding, should see it that way and will do their best to convince us that they do. The plain fact is, however, that they will always be favourites to overcome Zimbabwe and should beat them almost as often.

Yet it is not Zimbabwe that England have to worry about, except in the immediate sense that they are playing them this week, four times in Zimbabwe a few days later in one-off one-dayers and at least three times in the triangular series at home this summer. Nor is it South Africa, themselves in the process of transformation, desperately missing Allan Donald and Darryl Cullinan and in greater disarray than they like you to believe through the vagaries of their selection policy and being expected to play too much.

If only it were all that simple for Hussain and Fletcher, they could have taken heart from the gutsy performance in yet another narrow defeat against the hosts on Friday night in East London and gone off to Sun City for golf this weekend with a song in their hearts. A shiver down the spine, more like.

What England have to look to, what everybody now has to look to, is Australia. They are a team, as Chris Adams rightly observes elsewhere, so far ahead of the rest in talent, desire and application that it is breathtaking. On Friday evening on the southern coast of this country, England made 231, which was the highest first innings score of this tournament. Well done lads, grand effort.

A few hours earlier in Sydney, Australia had made 337, swatted Pakistan aside and probably had a dressing-room meeting about where it all went wrong. There is a lot of fancy talk about giving this England side a chance, of carving a future. They will need it. So long as they recognise what they have to do to catch the Australians,.

Until England can take on Zimbabwe and apply the steamroller then they will remain barely a work in progress. There are some uplifting signs. The two-wicket defeat by South Africa could easily have been a two-run win. It was a good match, the best so far in the tournament. It helped that there was a decent if not substantial first-innings total that was always likely to keep the opposition interested but never complacent. The outstanding feature for England, regardless of Mark Alleyne's worthy old pro's man of the match performance with bat, ball and hands, Graeme Hick's lean spell and Mark Ealham being expected to bowl the last over, was the sustained batting form of Nick Knight.

Perhaps he should have gone on after making 64 in 111 balls but he has 248 runs in the tournament, has been out only three times and is showing that he can adapt his role as opener to suit the occasion. It is rum to reflect that this dashing player was omitted from England's World Cup side because of something insubstantial like poor form.

Knight and Hick, who will score some shortly, are essential components. They have 150 caps between them and when they have gone on to make that figure 300 England may be something other than competitive.

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