Once upon a time, there was a type of one-day cricket that England were consistently good at. It was called the Prudential or Texaco Trophy, it was held in this country, usually in May, and it consisted of a head-to-head, best-of-three series (at most - sometimes two or even one) that took no longer than a week. From 1987 to 1998, there were 16 such series and 13 of them were won by England. In 1997, they beat Australia 3-0, something that could happen these days only in a computer game.
In 1998 the England and Wales Cricket Board dumped the three-match format in favour of the triangular one-day series, the Australian model which takes the best part of a month to whittle three teams down to two. England's fortunes slumped: out of four series, they have won only one, in 2000, against the less than powerful forces of Zimbabwe and West Indies. This year, the old best-of-three returned, not instead of, but as well as the flawed triangular, and England resumed their winning ways.
But only just. As entertainment, the series was great: the destiny of the trophy was in doubt until the second-last over, Pakistan were as watchable as ever, two of the three games were close, and the one that was not close was memorable, thanks to James Anderson's hat-trick and Marcus Trescothick's opening blitz. The NatWest Challenge, as it is now known, displayed the succinctness which was driven out of one-day international cricket some time ago and found an unlikely refuge in Test matches.
But it didn't take a great deal of winning. The two sides competed to show their naïvety as well as their skills. Pakistan would have wrapped up the decider long before the end if they had held their catches. They might even have done it just by taking their run-out chances (Trescothick before he had scored, let alone made a hundred) and avoiding no-balls (18 in the series to England's four). Each match was won by the team with the greater support, as if the players were lightweight enough to be buffeted by the vibes from the crowd.
"Same old story for new-look England", said a headline after the first game. What appeared to be a paradox was closer to a self-fulfilling prophecy. It was the same old story precisely because there was a new look. The selectors have been throwing batches of novices in at the deep end since time immemorial, and it nearly always has the same effect: the fielding improves and the batting becomes even more collapsible. The combination was embodied in Jim Troughton, who came into the team as a promising young strokeplayer and is now established in it as a specialist fielder. He saved countless runs with his athleticism at midwicket, but made very few with the bat owing to a clear weakness against one kind of delivery - the good-length ball just outside off stump, at which he fences unconvincingly in the great left-handed tradition. By an unlucky coincidence, this is a stock ball for most international bowlers. Shaun Pollock will be licking his lips.
Beforehand, it looked as if the selectors, in their eagerness to make changes, had forgotten to pick a middle order, and so it proved. Troughton batted at No 4, far too pivotal a position for a beginner, and the general inexperience - five rookies in the top eight - persuaded Michael Vaughan to put himself at No 3 rather than opening. Radiating authority in the field, showing plenty of acumen with his bowling changes and flexibility with his close catchers, but struggling for runs and unsure of his place in the order, Vaughan has confirmed that you can change the captain without greatly changing the style of captaincy.
The decision to open with Vikram Solanki made sense, as he goes in first for Worcestershire and opener is the easiest place to bat in one-day cricket. But it left England in danger of losing the one formidable partnership in their ranks, between Vaughan and Trescothick. They batted together only once, in the third match, when they added 65 - the best stand for any England wicket in the series involving one of the middle order. But even if Solanki continues to open, Vaughan should move up from No 3. He urgently needs to master the one-day game and is much more likely to do so at the top of the order, where he has made seven of his eight Test hundreds.
The man who could move down is Trescothick. If his 86 at The Oval was that of an opener, all over in the first hour, his 108 at Lord's took four times as long and showed the canny tenacity of the finisher. With Paul Collingwood injured, Trescothick finds himself the only finisher in the team. Anthony McGrath has it in him to be another, but Rikki Clarke might as well be Nicky Clarke for all the nous he brings to the crease. South Africa must be delighted to see Graham Thorpe still out in the cold.
Tim de Lisle is editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 2003.Reuse content