Michael Vaughan has spent the past few days attempting to develop a strategy that will transform England into a competitive one-day side. It is an unenviable task because, believe it or not, England were expected to perform better in the Test series and the Twenty20 international than they were in limited-over cricket when they travelled to Australia more than nine weeks ago.
The England captain will have considered batting orders, pinch-hitters, viewed the benefits of playing specialists over bits-and-pieces players, seamers who can mix it up and spinners who can take wickets in the middle of an innings. The hours will have been spent earnestly but, sadly, there appears to be only one realistic upshot - if Kevin Pietersen or Andrew Flintoff fail to score heavily, England are in trouble.
Vaughan will not agree with the judgement and it may be a bit harsh on Andrew Strauss, who has passed 50 in three of England's last four wins against decent opposition - the victory against Ireland has been overlooked - and Paul Collingwood, who continues to provide industry in the middle order. But one-day cricket is about batsmen hurting the opposition, and Pietersen and Flintoff are the only two England players with the power to do this to Australia and New Zealand in the Commonwealth Bank Series.
England open the triangular series tomorrow when they take on Australia in Melbourne and, to judge by the way they were thrashed in Tuesday's Twenty20 encounter in Sydney, a win is unlikely. Over the next month, England will play four times against both Australia and New Zealand. The Kiwis are a very competitive and well-drilled one-day outfit so qualifying for the finals would be seen as a major achievement for Vaughan's side.
Australia are expected to progress to the finals and this makes England's first encounter against New Zealand, in Hobart on Tuesday, a crucial match. An England victory would provide the team with a huge boost. It would allow the players to convince themselves that it was Australia's brilliance rather than their own inadequacies that turned the Ashes into a mismatch.
A defeat to New Zealand, however, would have dreadful consequences. It would ensure that Vaughan's deflated troops leave Tasmania believing that they were, indeed, a pretty ordinary side. A loss would mean that England have to beat New Zealand in their three remaining games, or surprise everyone by overcoming Ricky Ponting's wonderful team at least once.
England's one-day cricket is so disjointed that it is difficult to work out how they can get it right before the World Cup in March. Marcus Trescothick's illness, Simon Jones' knee injury, Ashley Giles' family issues and Steve Harmison's one-day retirement have hit England hard. It has forced Vaughan to open the innings, even though he has only batted there nine times in 71 one-day games, and deprived England of a consistent attack.
Pietersen is the outstanding player. He possesses the power, touch and skill to play any type of innings. But he is the only England batsman who can do this. During the Test series there were several examples of why England struggle in one-day cricket. When bogged down by accurate bowling, they seem incapable of rotating the strike by taking singles. Attempting a big shot appeared to be the only way out but it was high risk.
Strauss has recovered from the stiff neck suffered as a result of a hit on the head by Brett Lee in the fifth Test and he is expected to replace Ed Joyce at the top of the order. Monty Panesar bowled well at the SCG and could make his one-day debut.
The bowling continues to be a major worry. Flintoff is England's rock with the ball but he can only bowl 10 of the 50 overs. James Anderson is, remarkably, England's sixth-highest wicket-taker in one-day cricket with 78 victims yet he still gives the impression of being a rookie bowler.
Anderson's bowling in the Twenty20 international was naïve and it will probably cost him his place in the team. The remainder of the attack is inexperienced but England cannot use this as an excuse at the World Cup. They have had four years to prepare for the event.
"If we are to turn the tour around we have to somehow change the momentum," said Collingwood. "Sometimes it only takes a hundred, a five-wicket haul or a special catch and if we can get a win the confidence will return pretty quickly.
"We do not want to go into the World Cup with loads of losses. Hopefully, we can have some fun. We may be a dark horse but we believe we can still be a force in the World Cup."
Fun is a word that is not often associated with sport at the highest level but it is a vital component of a team's performance. England have somehow to shed the burden of the Ashes defeat and lighten up. But what comes first, a win or the ability to have fun? A match-winning knock from Pietersen or Flintoff tomorrow would do the trick.
World in their hands: Three who are Caribbean dreaming
If the Hampshire paceman can stay fit and get a bit of nastiness into his bowling, he could be a crackerjack. At the moment he is too nice. Facing a 6ft 8in bloke who pings the ball down at 85mph is no fun. A couple of hours with Glenn McGrath could do the trick.
The England selectors are unconvinced about Geraint Jones and Chris Read's vibrancy behind the stumps and ability with the bat, and Nixon could sneak in at the last moment. The 36-year-old made a good start in the Twenty20 match but the run out of Monty Panesar was stupid.
Who would have thought it? Last summer Monty's batting and fielding were laughed at but here he is playing under floodlights. The low, slow nature of the pitches in the Caribbean could make him hard to hit. The next month will show whether his temperament for one-day cricket is right.
One day at a time: England's squad and fixtures
England's 16-man squad for the 2007 Commonwealth Bank Series: M P Vaughan (captain), J M Anderson, I R Bell, P D Collingwood, J W M Dalrymple, A Flintoff, E C Joyce, J Lewis, S I Mahmood, P A Nixon (wicketkeeper), M S Panesar, K P Pietersen, L E Plunkett, C M W Read (wicketkeeper), A J Strauss, C T Tremlett.
12 Jan Australia v England (Melbourne)
14 Jan Australia v New Zealand (Hobart)
16 Jan England v NZ (Hobart)
19 Jan Australia v England (Brisbane)
21 Jan Australia v NZ (Sydney)
23 Jan England v New Zealand (Adelaide)
26 Jan Australia v England (Adelaide)
28 Jan Australia v New Zealand (Perth)
30 Jan England v New Zealand (Perth)
2 Feb Australia v England (Sydney)
4 Feb (Australia v NZ (Melbourne)
6 Feb England v NZ (Brisbane)
9 Feb First final (Melbourne)
11 Feb Second final (Sydney)
13 Feb Third final (Brisbane).Reuse content