'If' seems the operative word

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The Independent Online

For such a noted scamperer of singles, Neil Fairbrother is in danger of acquiring a reputation for running people out.

In South Africa a few weeks ago he poked the ball straight to Jonty Rhodes and set off for a run that wrecked the already-ruined tour of Mark Ramprakash. Yesterday he did as much for Graeme Hick, who was pursuing New Zealand's total with deadly calm. It probably helped Hick that he had a runner (Mike Atherton) and it certainly suited him - tonking the ball into gaps and ambling to square leg. But when Fairbrother belted the ball into the hands of Roger Twose at cover, there was no escape. Atherton hesitated and was lost. England are not very good at turning ones into twos; now they were struggling to get runs out of Twose.

It was a bad moment in a bad day. England dropped four catches, missed a couple of run-outs, and fumbled persistently. At one point a surprised Gujarati fan turned to the English press corps and asked: "England's fielding - is it always this bad?" If only one could have said no.

After South Africa, England were in dire need of a win, and now, well, here we go again. But in the context of this tournament it is far too early to reach for the revolver. Atherton will probably be abused for giving the opposition first use of the pitch that slowed sharply as the day wore on; but New Zealand would have bowled first if they had won the toss. It was not a wrong decision. The new ball swung nicely, both openers edged to slip, and Thorpe put down the pair of them. "They could have been 10 for 2 and in the mire," Atherton said. But they weren't. After 20 overs they were 92 for 1, in the driving seat they never quite relinquished.

Again, bad starts are nothing new. In the last World Cup Pakistan were on the receiving end of a 10-wicket trouncing by the West Indies, and were then bowled out by England for 74. Whether England can bounce back like Imran's team is another question. Yesterday the key word was "if," the title, coincidentally, of England's favourite poem. Kipling's lyric always seems like a tribute to stoic patience, but when it comes to our cricketers it just means wishful thinking. Atherton tried to sound defiant ("the balance of the side was right. The decision to insert was right") but couldn't stop himself iffing. "If we'd caught our catches it could have been different," he said. "If Hick had stayed in we might have got close." Raymond Illingworth agreed: "If he'd not been run out we might have sneaked it. And if there hadn't been a hesitation there'd have been no problem."

If, if, if. Talk about an iffy word. If we had not lost, we might have won. However poor the fielding, with 20 overs left the game was still there to be won with the bat - England needed 118 with eight wickets in hand. But who these days would dare back them in such circumstances? All their wishful iffing had the desperate feel of the Valentine's Day messages in the local paper. "Please do visit me," went one, "or bullet pierces my head like mint with the hole." If England catch their catches they might win their matches. But what if they do not?