England start out on World Cup journey
Whatever the hype and hysteria over the next couple of weeks, there be will no World Cups or Ashes urns won as England and Australia resume hostilities in the NatWest ODI series. Instead, these five games represent not a destination, but a step on the journey for both teams.
That does not render this series worthless. It will act as a barometer of each side's true position and provide an idea of how they must improve. It might also provide a vague guide to next year's ICC Champions Trophy. The fact that Lord's is expecting a capacity crowd of 30,000 underlines not only the draw that encounters between these two sides still has, but the draw of a wonderful, well-run ground. To regularly fill a stadium of this size in the current economic climate is a fine effort.
That England go into this series with an outside chance of becoming the No. 1-ranked ODI side - they will need to win 5-0 to do so - speaks volumes not just for their progress in recent times, but also for some anomalies within the ranking system. A team that has lost so comprehensively in both India (5-0 at the end of 2011) and Australia (6-1 after the 2010-11 Ashes series) will surely have to win a major global trophy to convince that they are more than a very good side in their own conditions.
That remains a key aim of this England side. Indeed, this series has been scheduled very much with a view to the World Cup, to be played in Australia and New Zealand in 2015, and the Champions Trophy, to be played in England next year. In return for this five-match series, England will have the chance to acclimatise with a five-match ODI series in Australia ahead of the World Cup, while these games should help both sides prepare for the Champions Trophy.
It was a point made by England captain, Alastair Cook, as he looked forward to the games. "The reason this series is in is because of the 2015 World Cup," Cook said. "We really want to have some warm-ups in Australia to get used to those conditions just before that World Cup. That makes sense for our preparation then, so obviously as a reciprocal thing they have to come here. As players we don't mind. It's going to be a brilliant, hopefully, ten days.
"We haven't won an ICC [one-day] trophy and we have a good chance next summer in our home conditions. That would suit us well. Clearly in a four year cycle you build to the World Cup but on the way you have to win as many games as you can. The Champions Trophy next year is half way to the World Cup and a good stepping stone."
England have a dismal record in the last five World Cups and, despite the recent success in the UAE, they also have a modest ODI record away from home. But, in their own conditions, they are dangerous and recent performances suggest they are heading in the right direction.
No other side is playing ODI cricket with the same methodology as England. While all other major sides have at least one explosive batsman at the top of the batting order, England have opted for batsmen of more solid, traditional style and a line-up that increasingly resembles their Test side. One of the few concessions they have made to 'specialist' limited-overs players comes with the selection of Craig Kieswetter as wicketkeeper. And it is his place that is, arguably, most at risk.
But just because no-one else is doing it does not make England's method wrong. Indeed, against two new white balls and a No. 1-rated ODI side boasting at least two high-quality fast bowlers, England may well be grateful for batsmen of the class of Ian Bell, Cook and Jonathan Trott at the top of the order.
It is worth remembering that England, too, would be playing quite differently had Kevin Pietersen not departed. But, just as Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss only came to form the captain/coach partnership that revived England's fortunes through the successful calamity that was the sacking of Pietersen and Peter Moores, so we may come to reflect in time that Pietersen's retirement proved to be a blessing in disguise. Bell, in particular, has been given a fresh chance to fulfil his undoubted potential in this format.
Cook said he was not surprised how quickly England had moved on from Pietersen. "It's a great sign of strength," he said. "It's an encouraging sign as a captain that we have a good squad of players, that if someone is no longer here we have got people who can come in and perform straight away.
"We are very much a developing one-day side and we're desperate to keep going up the rankings," Cook said. "I think we are progressing as a team. People are starting to feel comfortable in their roles in the set-up, but that doesn't count for anything when you walk out on the pitch.
"We've got a really good test of ourselves now. They've proven they are going to be a really tough and dangerous one-day side and a tough side to beat. We're got to have to be at our absolute best.
"Each international side has a couple of guys who can get it up to 90mph and these guys are now in a similar position to us in that they have eight or nine guys who can play in their fast bowling slots. They're in a position of strength just like we are."
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo