Whichever way you look at it, today's NatWest Series final against India at Lord's is a big game for England.
The obvious priority for captain Nasser Hussain is to win the trophy, which against quality opposition will be an achievement in itself. However, in attempting to reach this goal, he and his selectors will give their clearest indication yet, with the World Cup getting closer by the day, on what they believe to be their strongest side.
During this tournament there has been an element of tinkering with the team. Some of it has been caused by form, the rest from a desire to have a look at possible alternatives. But with Hussain – who missed yesterday's final practice session at Lord's to collect his OBE from Prince Charles – indicating this week that he wishes to take his World Cup squad to Sri Lanka for the ICC trophy and then to Australia for their triangular one-day competition, today offers several players who are yet to cement a place in the side a last chance to impress.
The most competitive and contentious area for places is at the top of the order, where five players are vying for four places. During the six group games in this series the three ever-presents have been Marcus Trescothick, Nick Knight and the captain. The fourth spot has been shared equally between Graham Thorpe and Michael Vaughan. These two are rated highly by Hussain and he would like to have them in his side.
With Hussain and Trescothick certain of their selection, the place that appears most under threat if England were to accommodate these two is that of Knight. Such speculation will come of no surprise to the Warwickshire batsman, who lost his opening slot on the eve of England's miserable 1999 World Cup campaign to Hussain, who was not even selected in the original squad.
There are mutterings that the same thing could happen again, and if this is England's ultimate pla, then today offers them the ideal stage to launch it. Waiting until the last possible moment, as they did four years ago, would not only be wrong, but would make a mockery of England's planning.
It is debatable though whether Knight should make way. Despite not having had the best of tournaments Knight has, over the last 12 months, been England's leading one-day batsman. He has played in all 22 games and scored 856 runs at an average of 45.05, which compares favourably to England's next best performer who is Trescothick, with 763 at 34.68. Vaughan and Thorpe over the same period have scored 531 runs at an average of 27.95. Setting these statistics next to Thorpe's sometimes apathetic attitude towards one-day cricket, and it should be the Surrey left-hander who remains on the sidelines.
The only way England could accommodate all five is if one of Ronnie Irani or Paul Collingwood miss out, and there are also views that only one of these two should play in England's best side. Again this would be wrong as it would have a detrimental affect on the balance of the side. Dropping one of these two for a specialist batsman, would mean that England go into a game with just five bowlers, and the limited skills of Vaughan's off-spin as a safety valve. All captains need options, and Hussain would be aware how short his would be without Irani or Collingwood.
The area that will be causing Hussain and Fletcher most concern is the specialist fast bowling department. Darren Gough, even though not yet 100 per cent fit after his recent knee problems, is a certainty, but no other bowler has grabbed the opportunity offered by Andrew Caddick's absence.
Matthew Hoggard, James Kirtley and Alex Tudor have each had two games or more. They have all proved expensive and with Kirtley now out injured with a broken right hand, today's game could prove to be a winner takes all shoot-out for the last seamers place between Tudor and Hoggard.
While Hussain's one-day side is taking shape and generally moving in the right direction, India's has come on leaps and bounds from the side England encountered during the winter. The predictable names of Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid have grabbed most of the headlines, along with the fresh talent of Yuvraj Singh and Mohammed Kaif, but it is their fielding, and the togetherness this suggests, which has been most impressive.
Credit for these improvements must go to their coach, John Wright, for bringing in this change in attitude, and their captain, Sourav Ganguly, for supporting them. In the past they have not always seen eye to eye, but Wright now seems to have won over his captain and the results are there for all to see. Ganguly has moved from a surly, ambivalent leader to a keen, proactive and attacking captain who is up with the game. Ganguly's only injury concern is over Anil Kumble's calf strain. If he fails a fitness test today Harbhajan Singh is expected to replace him.
In the last four-and-a-half months England and India have met nine times with the score standing four wins each, one was a no-result. Moving into a 5-4 lead against a good Indian side would indicate just how far England have advanced.
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