The best by 2007? Not at this rate

England's world ambition was a proud rallying call - but the grand design is in trouble
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The Independent Online

It all started at a girls' boarding school in Surrey. Perhaps it was the improbable setting, but to be there was to be clasped in the tight grip of evangelical fervour. England declared their aim to conquer the planet. You could almost believe not only that they meant it, but that they would do it.

It all started at a girls' boarding school in Surrey. Perhaps it was the improbable setting, but to be there was to be clasped in the tight grip of evangelical fervour. England declared their aim to conquer the planet. You could almost believe not only that they meant it, but that they would do it.

Delegates from all forms of cricketing life, from the England captain to the fixtures secretary of South Harting's Sunday XI, were there to hear the unequi- vocal mission statement in the National Strategy. By 2007, England intended to be the best team in the world, and to win the World Cup. Nobody laughed.

"We want to ensure that England become and remain the most successful cricket nation in the world," said Tim Lamb, chief executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board. "The strategy is deliberately ambitious because we want to be the best."

The halfway point for the strategy will be reached this week. It was in April 2001 - 1,047 days ago - that the objectives were announced. The uncomfortable feeling exists that the 1,050 days left until 2007 dawns may not be enough to fulfil them.

Recent proceedings in India have been particularly disquieting. It was not simply that England A lost their one-day series to India A 3-0, which might have been expected against superior opposition on alien pitches. England A are actually the inexperienced England National Academy side relabelled at the understandable insistence of the Indian Board, who are doing the ECB a huge favour.

The gloomy reaction of the squad's manager and Academy director, Rod Marsh, was perhaps more pertinent. Asked if there had been progress, he said there had been - backwards. Invited to muse on England's chances of beating Australia when the teams next meet, in 2005 he said: "I would suggest they're going to have to get a wriggle on". By then, of course, it will be getting dangerously close to 2007. Yet another loss of three cheap, early wickets in the A team's opening four-day match yesterday merely emphasised the justice of Marsh's assess-ment. The later recovery to 344 for 8 was completely necessary.

Certainly the pressure has intensified on England to beat West Indies when they embark later this month on their tour of four Tests and seven one-dayers. West Indies are abject abroad, where they have won series against only Bangladesh and Zimbabwe in the past nine years, but they are also vulnerable at home, having lost three of their five rubbers this century. England have not won in the Caribbean for 36 years, but form, standing and the National Strategy demand victory. Anything but and the intentions for 2007 would begin to look both premature and ludicrous.

England had one of their greatest wins late last season at The Oval to draw the series against South Africa, but they had spent the summer clinging on to the tourists' coat-tails. In Sri Lanka, on the first part of their winter sojourn, they did likewise, defending stoutly for two Tests. But then they lost the third timorously. Strange to think that when the mission statement was made, England had just beaten Sri Lanka in an away Test series and been hammered in the one-dayers, and now at the midway stage they have just been defeated in both. Marsh, though not Duncan Fletcher, might suggest that they had progressed backwards.

It will be fascinating to see if Australia do any better in Sri Lanka next month, but it was notable that their new captain, Ricky Ponting, called two days ago for an aggressive brand of cricket. He wants his team playing away as they play at home (he failed to mention the recent hiccup against India). Do not expect Australia to be cowed by Muttiah Muralith-aran as England were (which does not mean that Murali will not have the last word, of course).

As Marsh expressed his displeasure with his charges, the ECB were launching another initiative, the Fast Bowling Talent Identification Programme. To propel this they have established the Elite Fast Bowling Group, under the Academy fast bowling coach, Troy Cooley. Put simply, they want to find the talent and then look after it. This is admirable in theory and it may work in practice, but it is also belated. Too many young England bowlers have been injured, or, as we have seen all too often in the past 18 months, are not good enough for the demands of international cricket.

The EFBG is the sort of programme that should have been put in place when the 2007 mission was announced, not midway through it when you are beginning to panic that you might not make it. It is like announcing a manned mission to Mars and deciding after 62.5 million miles that you really ought to have an oxygen supply aboard. There are those who think that a manned mission to Mars will happen before England become the best cricket team on earth, and Rod Marsh might be among them.

And is it not time to establish a Batting Talent Identification Programme? England have struggled to unearth new batsmen (three, Rob Key, Anthony McGrath and Ed Smith, have been tried and ditched in a year) but soon, and before 2007, they will need to replace their thirtysomething middle order of Mark Butcher, Nasser Hussain and Graham Thorpe. Thorpe, incidentally, is perhaps the most illustrious graduate of the proper England A team, having been on four tours before being picked for the senior side. Not that it always worked, and the Academy might take succour from this: Michael Vaughan averaged eight and seven on his first two A trips.

There is a bright side. England might already have a fast bowler worth the name in India. While the A team's batsmen were getting pummelled, the Lancastrian Sajid Mahmood was dishing it out, invariably taking new-ball wickets. If he can sustain his early prowess in the four-day games of the Duleep Trophy, his reputation will have advanced considerably. He will need to, since England have tough matches against West Zone and South Zone.

Overtaking Australia seems unlikely at best. But here is a scenario. If Australia lose to Sri Lanka and then in their following series lose to India, beat West Indies and draw with Pakistan and New Zealand, while England beat West Indies (twice), New Zealand, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh and draw with South Africa, it would mean that the 2005 Ashes would almost certainly give England a chance of overtaking Australia in the ICC Test Championship. That would be two years ahead of schedule.

In case anybody wonders, the mission statement was made at Woldingham School, and not St Trinian's.