If they play, they can compete

By Angus Fraser
Sunday 09 February 2003 01:00
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The contractual dispute between the England players and the England and Wales Cricket Board was used as a reason for the abject performance in the 1999 World Cup. That, though, was a minor distraction compared to what Nasser Hussain and his 2003 squad have been going through.

The dilemma of whether England should play in Zimbabwe has gone on for far too long and is bound to have affected their slim chances of winning the tournament. The players must be disillusioned by the whole sorry affair, and this is no way to enter the game's biggest event.

It may sound ridiculous, but I feel the team have a better chance of reaching the second round – the Super Sixes – if they forfeit the four points and do not travel to Zimbabwe. From the stance they have taken it is obvious the players do not want to be there, and such a decision could unite them as a team.

Mentally they will be in better shape to beat two from Australia, India and Pakistan – something which they almost have to do anyway to qualify – if they have not had their arms twisted.

When they get around to some actual cricket, picking their strongest side is a simple affair by comparison. The only position which should take more than a five-minute discussion is that of the left-arm spinner. Ian Blackwell performed reasonably well in Australia but his batting was disappointing. That means Ashley Giles should get his one-day place back – he is the better bowler.

At their best, England are a competitive side. Their strengths are the opening partnership of Marcus Trescothick and Nick Knight and the fact they have three high-quality all-rounders. Alec Stewart, Andrew Flintoff and Craig White give England's batting plenty of depth. This is vital, because it is batsmen more often than not who win one-day games. The ideal team contains eight players who are capable of scoring fifty. These three give England just this.

Having depth to your batting also allows the top of the order to play in a positive manner and make the most of the fielding restrictions in the first 15 overs. Trescothick and Knight seldom need such reassurance, however. They seem to go out and play in the same way no matter what the batting line-up behind them is. Good teams needthese assets down the order if they are to overcome the loss of early wickets, which is going to happen at some stage.

Trescothick and Knight are both left-handers, but they have contrasting styles which allow them to hit the ball in different places. This makes the job of the opposing captain harder, because he has to change the field constantly.

Trescothick is full of grace and power. The Somerset opener is a glorious timer of the ball, a joy to watch when he gets going. He has the ability to destroy any attack, and he and Flintoff are England's primematch-winning hopes.

Knight is not so pleasing to the eye. In full flow the ball seems to fly anywhere and everywhere off his bat. It may not be pretty but it works, as an average of over 41 testifies. The innings of the Warwickshire opener tend not to be as destructive as those of his partner, but are just as useful.

Much will be expected of Michael Vaughan. There is no doubt he has the ability to make an impression during the World Cup, but it would be wrong to pin England's hopes on a man who averages only 22 in 21 one-day games. The mental side of playing Test cricket is a lot different, and it takes time to adapt.

England's middle order have been inconsistent. Hussain, Stewart, Flintoff and Paul Collingwood are capable of match-winning innings, but too often get out with the finishing line in sight. For England to win tight games, one of them has to be in at the end. Collingwood is developing and performed well in the VB Series. He is outstanding in the gully and adds sparkle to an ordinary fielding side.

It is with the ball and in the field where England have their weaknesses. Hussain's side are at least 20 runs behind Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in the athleticism shown by their fielders. Too many of the team are functional rather than dynamic, and it is the extra runs that both they and the bowlers give away which cost matches.

England's bowling is a worry. The loss of Darren Gough has left them with a huge hole to fill because he added a cutting edge with the new ball and had the ability to bowl yorkers at the end of an innings.

England are fortunate James Anderson has taken to international cricket quickly, but there will be times when he could be out of his depth. Andrew Caddick, White and Flintoff have experience and need to be at their best if England are to prosper beyond the first round.

Fraser's England: N Hussain (c), M E Trescothick, N V Knight, M P Vaughan, P D Collingwood, A J Stewart, A Flintoff, C White, A F Giles, A R Caddick, J M Anderson.

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