Top of the one-day world but long way to go, says Cook
England ranked No 1 but captain knows they have lots of work to do to peak at global events
Thanks to the intricacies of mathematical formulae and algorithms, England begin a one-day series today as the world's best team. Nobody believes this unless they are either consorting with fairies or think that cricket is played as part of a software program and it was welcome to hear yesterday that the players themselves have not been fooled with this absurd piece of ICC propaganda.
As the captain, Alastair Cook, said yesterday when asked if they felt like the top team: "No, I don't think we do. I think we have a long way to go to do that. It's really encouraging that we've won two series this summer and one against Pakistan at the beginning of the year.
"It was certainly a surprise when it came through that we were No 1. But for me, as a side we've got such a long way to go in terms of where we want to get to and the amount of improvement we've got to make."
This was a cool and proper assessment of where England are. Between World Cups is another way of looking at it and England would trade any amount of weeks at the top of the charts to win a World Cup, or even its less exalted cousin, the runt of the limited-overs litter, known as the Champions Trophy.
Since reaching the final of the former tournament in 1992, no England team has gone further than the quarter-finals; and the final of the latter, once, when it was played at home is the best they can offer there. If it is also true that some of those sides have managed the trick of peaking between tournaments instead of at them, this one, as Cook indicated, is heading in the right direction.
After winning three successive series since being given the runaround in India last autumn, England will do exceedingly well to make it four against South Africa. The NatWest Series, which starts today, comprises five matches – with three Twenty20s to follow – and as it happens the tourists are at No 2 in the world ranking.
Nominally, therefore, it is a clash for the top spot but both sides have much longer-term goals. England have found a balance that works, albeit one with potentially glaring weaknesses. Cook himself has been the biggest surprise since he assumed the captaincy. His elevation coincided with his recall as a player and was greeted with scepticism moving into the realms of derision.
His response has been to score 1,180 runs at an average of 52 and a scoring rate of 88 runs per 100 balls, which places him comfortably inside the world's top 10. It is not handsome to watch and there is an air of the makeshift in the way he tries to ferry the ball to the boundary, but it has proved constantly effective.
As Cook's new opening partner, Ian Bell has reinvented his one-day career. The change in the ODI regulations, or rather the latest change since there will be another one along soon, to using two new balls from the start of each innings, has benefited Bell.
It means that proper batsmanship will be rewarded and that the maverick pinch hitter is much less likely to reap dividends. Bell has been lovely to watch, with a hundred and three fifties so far this summer, although there is a slight concern about his poor form towards the end of the Investec Test series. He will need a score quickly to shake off the memory.
The return of Ravi Bopara is an imponderable. He is reported to be over the domestic problems which caused him to withdraw from the second Test against South Africa, or at least to have come to terms with them. But this is a big stage and any invasion of the mind by external factors can diminish performance.
It is down the order that England may be susceptible. Craig Kieswetter does not look especially convincing at No 6 and, although he takes some wildly spectacular catches behind the stumps, up there with the best ever seen in England's one-day cricket, his overall work remains untidy.
If Tim Bresnan is played at seven that automatically lengthens the tail. But if it is a strategy with inherent risks, it is one they may be prepared to adopt later in the series. Presumably here at Cardiff they will select Samit Patel to bat at seven, as an extra spin option.
At least the running between the wickets should be flawless: the England players were given some coaching by the British sprinter Christian Malcolm here yesterday.
Through luck or careful planning, England appear to be making a fist of having three captains for the various forms of international cricket.
South Africa make do with two, with AB de Villiers taking over from the Test captain, Graeme Smith, for the limited-overs stuff.
Cook felt the change of personnel and leader was working for England. He said: "That's why it's such a good place to captain in one way because you've got some fresh faces and the enthusiasm is really high to play this series and do well.
"This is why the three captains thing seems to work quite well. Certainly, I'm ready to go again with the challenge of leadership. As a captain I feel more comfortable in the role, happier making the decisions in the field and in selection with [England coach] Andy Flower. It's really helped with Andy, knowing each other playing at Essex. He's helped me through that."
England might win this series. If they do, it will not make them the best side in the world.
England's glorious run
England's last 10 one-day internationals (excluding abandonments):
13 February 2012 (Abu Dhabi) Beat Pakistan by 130 runs
15 February 2012 (Abu Dhabi) Beat Pakistan by 20 runs
18 February 2012 (Dubai) Beat Pakistan by nine wickets
21 February 2012 (Dubai) Beat Pakistan by four wickets
16 June 2012 (Rose Bowl) Beat West Indies by 114 runs (Duckworth/Lewis method)
19 June 2012 (The Oval): Beat West Indies by eight wickets
29 June 2012 (Lord's): Beat Australia by 15 runs
1 July 2012 (The Oval): Beat Australia by six wickets
7 July 2012 (The Riverside Ground): Beat Australia by eight wickets
10 July 2012 (Old Trafford): Beat Australia by seven wickets (D/L method)
1. England 121
2. South Africa 121
3. India 120
4. Australia 112
5. Sri Lanka 108
6. Pakistan 105
7. West Indies 94
8. New Zealand 74
9. Bangladesh 71
10. Zimbabwe 50
First ODI: Cardiff details
England (possible): A N Cook (capt), I R Bell, I J L Trott, E J G Morgan, C Kieswetter (wkt), J M Bairstow, S R Patel, T T Bresnan, G P Swann, S T Finn, J M Anderson.
South Africa (possible): A B de Villiers (wkt, capt), G C Smith, H M Amla, F du Plessis, J P Duminy, J L Ontong, J A Morkel, R J Peterson, L L Tsotsobe, M Morkel, W D Parnell.
Umpires K Dharmasena (SL) & R Kettleborough (Eng).
Pitch report Should be lowish and slowish with some turn, and plenty of runs for those prepared to take a gamble at the end of the innings.
Weather Wet and cloudy, with intermittent sunshine in the afternoon. Maximum temperature: 17C
TV Sky Sports 1, 10am-7pm. Highlights: Channel Five, 7-8pm.
Odds England Evens Sth Africa 4/5.
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