World Cup countdown starts with England still seeking winning blend

The one-day series against Australia, starting tomorrow at the MCG, will provide answers to several key selection questions
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All roads for England now lead to Mumbai on the first Saturday in April. Before then, however, their journey must take in all the major cities of Australia, swathes of India from top to bottom, a sojourn to southern Bangladesh and possibly a fleeting visit to the teardrop island of Sri Lanka, by which time they will be too exhausted either to laugh or cry.

By then the World Cup final will take care of itself.

The one-day series of seven matches against Australia which begins at the MCG tomorrow is important in its own right, of course. England always want to defeat Australia and vice versa multiplied twice over. This tourney has also taken on a new significance because it is being played against the backdrop of the disastrous floods which have engulfed vast tracts of Queensland, and there is a sense that the playing of cricket can show that life will still go on, that the human spirit will prevail.

The fifth match is due to be played in Brisbane on 30 January and while it must be in some doubt because of the sheer scale of the damage to the city centre, both the federal and state governments are eager for it to proceed. Not only will the match be used to raise funds for flood relief but it is also strongly felt that it will give Queenslanders some small measure of comfort amid the carnage.

But the sporting theme of the series is that it is preparation for the World Cup. It can only be so up to a point, because playing cricket in Australia is a little different from playing it in the subcontinent. There is a stark contrast in atmosphere, conditions and pitches.

Both sides, however, will conduct their affairs in the next three weeks with an eye on the quadrennial tournament, still the most prestigious in the ICC's burgeoning canon. England may try different permutations involving personnel and balance; Australia, the World Cup holders aiming for their fourth consecutive victory, are uncharacteristically uncertain of whether to trust to youth or not and may yet fall between two stools. The umpire decision review system will be used in one-dayers for the first time, also a precursor to the World Cup.

The sides have played a plethora of limited-overs matches against each other recently. In England last summer, the home side won 3-2, after taking a 3-0 lead. The year before, Australia won 6-1, England still numb with delight after their surprising recapture of the Ashes and unable either to concentrate or perform properly.

It is possible that post-Ashes euphoria will seize them once more. But it is highly improbable because this was always a distinctly separate part of the tour with a discernible goal after it. England have a real chance of winning, partly because Australia appear to be in a kind of shock and partly because of the resplendent form of so many of the tourists' batsmen.

Paul Collingwood, who is more desperate than most of his colleagues to win the World Cup as the pinnacle of a long career which has seen him become the country's most capped limited-overs player, said in an ICC podcast for the tournament yesterday: "It's a huge motivation to do well against Australia in all formats of the game. We want to keep the momentum going from the Test series and we want to carry that into the ICC Cricket World Cup. We want to finish the ODI series in Australia filled with confidence and ready to take on anyone at the World Cup.

"On current form I'd hope to put England into a semi-final, it would be hard to not put India in there with the strength in their batting and in home conditions – they'll be tricky to play against. I always think Australia can't be ruled out since they've had a good history in this tournament and finally I'd pick South Africa as the fourth semi-finalist. But you never know, I may be well off the mark."

His prediction, which ignores the huge claims of Sri Lanka in familiar terrain, clearly suggests that he expects the next three weeks to be close. The days of Australia's overwhelming superiority at this form of the game (and, come to think of it, at most other forms) have gone.

If it is a weakness for England that they will be missing their first-choice new-ball attack of Stuart Broad, out for the whole series because of abdominal injury, and Jimmy Anderson, missing the first three matches, then there is credence to their insistence that it gives them the chance to scrutinise other bowlers. Ajmal Shahzad, more impressive every time he appears, Chris Woakes, the hero of Wednesday's Twenty20 in Adelaide, and Chris Tremlett, the Ashes conqueror himself, will all have a proper opportunity to stake a claim to one of the 15 World Cup squad places.

At present it seems probable that the opening batsmen will be the captain Andrew Strauss, who has transformed himself as a one-day player, and the wicketkeeper Steve Davies. The latter may soon be on borrowed time. Since breaking into the side late last summer for the series against Pakistan he has flattered to deceive. An extremely well-ordered 87 in the first match was followed by innings in which he too easily gave it away after getting in.

It takes time to bed down in international cricket and Davies is powerful in hitting the ball square on both sides of the wicket. England are running out of time to effect a change but the temptation to open the batting with Ian Bell must be starting to pervade the selectors' thought processes. That would allow a middle order of Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen, Eoin Morgan and Collingwood.

The trouble with that is that it would effectively limit England to five bowlers, never enough in one-day cricket. Pietersen was dropped from the side for the Pakistan series but it is difficult to think that he will be overlooked again. The same may be true of Bell and Trott. It is not often that it can be said of an England batting line-up that there is an embarrassment of riches, but this might just be one of those times.

Australia are in a state of flux, they are without their injured captain Ricky Ponting, still a one-day force, and England might have the firepower in all departments to head for the subcontinent in wonderful heart.

Cup Chase: Four England prospects seeking to secure their places

Eoin Morgan

His star his risen dramatically. Morgan's innovation, intelligence and inner belief have made him simply one of the best limited-overs batsmen. He seems to be able to cope with and command any given position – and has pulled England out of the mire several times. The cleanness of his striking – the switch-hitting is a special delight – is matched by the clarity of his thought. Morgan can pierce the field at will and can hit extremely hard and long. It will be fascinating to discover if he can eventually make the transition to Test cricket.

Steve Davies

Brought into the side last summer for the series against Pakistan, when it was immediately clear that a World Cup place was his to lose. He can be fearless at the top of the order but there are also signs that England's fascination with having their wicketkeeper open in limited-overs cricket is doomed to failure. Alec Stewart did it with aplomb but Matt Prior and Craig Kieswetter, who found and lost form with dramatic suddenness, were less successful. The jury is out on Davies and it is an important three weeks for a solid cricketer.

Mike Yardy

Has adapted easily to international cricket in his second coming and is likely to be an integral part of the World Cup side, as he was of the winning World Twenty20 team last year. His strictly non-turning, orthodox left-arm spin is a thing of singular, elusive charm and unlikely effectiveness. He is a smart cricketer who has avoided being either milked or smashed for the most part, but surely someone will collar him one day soon. Should become much handier with the bat in the lower middle order than he has tended to show so far.

Luke Wright

As wholehearted a cricketer as it is possible to imagine, his energetic fielding standing out even in this blazingly athletic England side. It looks as though Wright's hopes to be a Test player have been dashed – being not quite good enough with either bat or ball – and his role in the one-day unit is not as settled as it was. Equally, it should not be underestimated: he has bowled some key overs – the Rose Bowl against Australia last summer – and made rapid, late-order runs – Chittagong against Bangladesh last winter – but does he do it often enough?