Stephen Brenkley: England look for sign of good times

The way Fletcher's troops play matters almost as much as the results for the campaigns ahead
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To increase the allure of some decidedly dodgy convenience food or other it is often suggested that it is a meal in itself. The International Cricket Council must have been tempted to try a version of this ploy with the event starting for real in India today. The Champions Trophy: a tournament in itself.

So it is, but while each team here - there are now eight left standing after Bangladesh and Zimbabwe were swatted aside in a preliminary round-robin which was by and large an uncompetitive disgrace to any sporting tournament - would not spurn the opportunity to win it, they view it as a means to an end. The end in this particular case is the World Cup in the West Indies next March and April.

What happens in India in the next fortnight is, or should be at this stage in the one-day cycle, mere fine-tuning, to ensure a state of readiness for the Caribbean. If that results in ultimate victory here, then so be it. Of course, in the nature of these things, whoever triumphs will suddenly deem it to be vastly significant.

England dare barely to dream of such things. It is wholly unexpected that they will perform well. Their one-day performances in the past two years have been as disheartening as their Test form has been uplifting. Often, they have taken a step forward and followed it with a couple backwards.

Yet there has been a surprising jauntiness in the squad. Most of the current bunch of England cricketers are always courteous and friendly, but they have given the impression in the past few days not only of being relaxed but of expecting to do well because they are well prepared.

Nothing in the recent past remotely hints at a sound basis for such optimism. If the 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Sri Lanka at home last summer was a nadir, England's away form, both long- and short-term, has been hopeless. It is often quoted that they have never won an away series against befitting opposition - that is, sides apart from Bangla-desh or Zimbabwe - since defeating New Zealand 3-0 early in 1992 immediately before they reached the World Cup final. Their recent away form has been equally poor: losing 4-1 against South Africa in early 2005, 3-2 against Pakistan last December, 5-1 against India earlier this year.

It is against this doleful backdrop that Andrew Flintoff returns to lead the team in his 100th one-day match for England, his official century having already been achieved because he played three times for the Rest of the World last autumn. Flintoff has not played since early June because of surgery on his troublesome ankle. He is not expected to bowl in this competition, or at least it is confidently expected that he will not be ready to get through a 10-over spell.

England must contend with that, which automatically affects the balance of the side, while trying belatedly to come to terms with the way the one-day form has unfolded. It is astonishing how they have so often been left behind in its evolution over the past 10 years. For instance, they never truly got to grips with pinch-hitting, and have too rarely settled on death bowlers.

To progress here, and for that matter in the World Cup, they must come to terms with power plays. That means, when batting, they have to be flexible to take advantage of the fielding restrictions in the 10 overs at the start of the innings and then still be able to score heavily in the two five-over blocks at any time later in the innings. With only two men allowed outside the 30-yard circle, the opportunities are obvious. Therefore England, like everyone else, might have to be prepared to change their batting order, although their players have hardly had time to bed down in one regular position without being shifted up or down.

Flintoff's legendary hitting prowess will be used up the order. He will come in at three, with the more brutal Kevin Pietersen at a moveable four. If these are the power hitters, the presence of Chris Read lower down is not to be underestimated. He is not only a robust hitter, he fashions improvised shots, and this winter he may make the selectors think about what they were doing leaving him out all that time.

But it is not only during the power plays that England have to improve. They have to take better advantage of the dead per-iods in the middle of the innings. If that means rotating the strike rather than hitting boundaries then they must be prepared to do so. Both the newcomers, Jamie Dalrymple and Mike Yardy, look capable of grasping this element.

When bowling, England need a fixed plan allied to the need to change it. Dalrymple and Yardy will assume an importance beyond their experience. But the death bowling - the five to 10 overs at the end when initiatives can shift - and who does it is another conundrum.

The Champions Trophy matters, of course, beyond being a tournament in itself. England would like to win it, not least because they never have, but also because it will set them on the way to the Ashes. At least seven, perhaps eight, possibly nine of the team who will line up in Brisbane on 21 November will play in India. It is important that Steve Harmison finds an appropriate length regularly, it is vital that James Anderson unleashes the odd breathtaking delivery, it is necessary for the top order to contribute substantial runs.

England could well lose. To play on successive weekends against India at home and then against the world champions, Australia, which whether they like it or not will be seen as an Ashes rehearsal, is a tough proposition. The latter match might be played before an empty house since the ICC are staging it at Diwali, a Hindu festival equivalent, more or less, to Christmas.

If they do lose, it will matter how. England must play mature, aggressive cricket, because all that follows in the rest of the winter will depend on that. The meal in itself could lead to a gourmet's banquet.