There are advantages to occupying a space outside the most intensely scrutinised sports. Getting away with a draw, for example. As this week’s Private Eye put it: “Cricket: England’s heroic cricketers today made their country proud by hanging on for a thrilling draw when defeat looked inevitable...” and “Football: England’s pathetic footballers today made their country ashamed by hanging on for a dismal draw when victory looked inevitable.”
But you wonder what it will take to shake us from the slough which eight months of football’s trials and tribulations can induce and wake up to the fact that there is a more fair than middling chance that England will lift their first ever international one-day cricket trophy – and on home soil, at that – in a few months’ time. If the Champions Trophy was drawing the eight best football nations together for three weeks of combat, then we would by now be knee-deep in squad announcements. England revealed their provisional 30-man squad on Thursday, and if you blinked you would have missed it.
The rest of the world feels differently about it. We learned this week, for example, that Pakistan’s cricket authorities have ordered the preparation of special pitches, replicating those their team will find in England, for their training camp at Abbottabad, to help the struggling batsmen who have recently been overwhelmed in South Africa. Jacques Kallis, who has missed South Africa’s past 14 one-day internationals, is in their own provisional squad as that nation seeks its own first major trophy. Australia, grouped with England, New Zealand and Sri Lanka, are engaged in what might be subterfuge – mysteriously declining to reveal a 30-man list, after consultation with the ICC.
The tournament has been billed as a compelling precursor to this summer’s Ashes, at best, though given the shape Australia are in it might turn out to be the summer’s high point. The narrative of England’s participation in international 50-over competitions has become dreadfully dismal, populated by little more than hubris and hollow optimism since the nation last reached the final of the World Cup in 1992. Beyond a runners-up berth in the 2004 Champions Trophy – a two-wicket defeat to West Indies – it’s been a desert. But there have been signs for some time that maligned and mildly derided ODIs are being seriously re-evaluated by the England management. It was their former coach Duncan Fletcher who urged England to play more ODIs to bring them closer to the far greater experience their opponents were garnering. There was one Test match fewer against South Africa, last summer, to make room for a better ODI schedule. In addition, the England Lions have played only one-day and Twenty 20 cricket over the last two winters. We’re about to see if that pays a dividend.
One-day cricket, the only form actually experienced by those of us brought up in the club game, is not quite such a busted flush, even as we approach the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the limited-overs game to the county calendar. (A rainy 1 May 1963, was the occasion of Lancashire meeting Leicestershire at Old Trafford for a first preliminary round match in the 65-over Gillette Cup, designed to spice up the schedules and draw the hordes back.)
There is now the introduction of two new balls in each innings, one for each end, to give some serious extra edge to the contest of bat v ball, when contending with just one white ball on English pitches has always been a challenge. The new fielding restrictions – only four outside the circle – give something back to the batsmen and encourage the shots. The crowd numbers also militate against the over-simplistic notion that ODIs, lodged in a tricky no man’s land between sacrosanct Tests and jazzy, young people’s T20, are history. One-day attendances in this country are little less than a revelation, drawing 92 per cent capacity crowds in total over the past decade, with a peak of 97 per cent in 2011 and 95 per cent last summer.
England head into the summer tucked in at No 2 in the world rankings, and though it’s all tailed off a bit since their 19 straight wins across 2011 and 2012, 25 wins out of 31 is a statement. Alastair Cook is eighth in the ODI world batting rankings which reveal the South Africans – the No 1 nation with Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers as one and two – to be the team to beat. Steven Finn is the third best ODI bowler in the world. But it is Jonathan Trott – fifth on the batsmen’s list – who is statistically significant, England’s team analyst Nathan Leamon told journalist Steve James last year. As James put it: “When Trott scores runs, England usually win.”
A handful of the games, to be held at The Oval, Cardiff and Edgbaston, have sold out and more tranches of tickets go on sale next week. Ashley Giles, England’s limited-overs head coach, wants to right the wrong of the 2004 final. There won’t be a run on St George’s Cross wing mirror covers but patriotism is in order. England – this is your time.