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With their one-day plans in a familiar mess six months out from the World Cup, questions abound on England's priorities and strategy
September 4, 2014
A largely fallacious debate has done the rounds in the media, old and new, in the past few days, in response to the question whether England would rather win the Ashes than the World Cup. There is no reason why England should put one above the other. They should be seeking to win both.
Only by doing something ineffably stupid - entirely scrapping domestic one-day cricket perhaps, or banning the reverse sweep in case it created bad habits in Test cricket - would English cricket make the question relevant. It is a false dichotomy, a convenient excuse reminiscent of the football chant beloved by supporters of failing sides: "We know we're rubbish but we don't care."
There may be an underlying point to this and, as ever this summer, it concerns Alastair Cook. The implication is that for England to gamble by removing Cook from the one-day captaincy, and in essence call time on his limited-overs career, ahead of the World Cup would cause such disruption that it would destroy England's chances of winning the Ashes next summer.
If that really was so, it would say little about England's structure or about Cook's character. It is not as if the structure could not cope or that Cook's standing in Test cricket would be undermined at a time when split captaincy in English cricket has become the norm.
Neither would Cook, a man of high integrity, go into a prolonged sulk and feel so betrayed that he retired from cricket forthwith and opened a music shop. This, after all, as Moeen Ali became the latest player to emphasis, is a man possessed of immense mental strength.
The fact is that England's hierarchy has wedded itself too inflexibly to Cook ever since they presented him as a paragon of virtue to justify their decision to dispense with the Black Prince, Kevin Pietersen. In everything they have said, they have raised Cook's sense of entitlement to dangerous proportions. Just because the debate fuelled beyond these pages by the likes of Graeme Swann and Michael Vaughan is regarded as essentially pointless does not mean that it should not be taking place.
To check this debate it would need England to win spectacularly in the final ODI at Headingley on Friday, to avoid a 4-0 India clean sweep and to pronounce that they had proved an ability to learn quickly, that India's trouncings had inspired them to new heights and that their World Cup challenge was back on traagain.
Then they will travel 12,000 miles much in the mood of the England football team, claiming that because expectations were so low they actually had a better chance of winning because they would play without fear. You don't have to be an expert on the World Cup in Brazil to know how that one worked out.
Moeen was unfortunate enough to be put on to the England coconut shy, two days after they had been walloped by India by nine wickets at Edgbaston. Do England care as much about one-day cricket, he was asked. "Definitely," he said.
That was where the discussion should rightly end. It would better to ask it of the media and the supporters. Reduced media interest in limited-overs cricket is one reason why England's domestic T20 has struggled to take root in the past decade and, as for England's supporters, India fans snapped up the tickets for this series so quickly that England could have claimed at Edgbaston to be playing in front of an away crowd.
At Headingley there will just be relief that the ground is full and the weather forecast is dry. After three ODI abandonments in the last five, added to the loss of another full house when the T20 fixture against Lancashire was rained off, Yorkshire, £22m in debt, would happily fill the ground with plastic dummies as long as somebody paid the entrance fee.
"Fear" was instead on Moeen's mind. He registered England's first half-century of the series at Edgbaston, an innings of impressive verve considering England's predicament. His return to Headingley, where he batted throughout the final day against Sri Lanka and came within two balls of saving the Test, was a reminder that he has proved himself not just a successful cricketer in his first season for England, but an adaptable one too.
"We can learn a lot from India," Moeen said. "Me sitting on the sidelines for the first two games, watching the way Indians bat, you can learn a lot from the way they approach it, with no fear and just back themselves. If there is a risk, they just take it. Sometimes it doesn't come off but as a team if we can all do that and execute the plan then we will be fine.
"Watching someone like Suresh Raina in the first game, they were in trouble and he came out and played the way he played. He took a few risks and they came off. He backed himself. I tried to copy it a little bit. I was just trying to get a score for the team, play how I play and not fear anything or anyone, just enjoy batting, put bat to ball, try and be different."
The message - a message England's hierarchy will approve - was that the plans are fine, it is just the execution of those plans has been so poor; that "the guys are definitely out of form and maybe lack a bit of confidence". Exactly what causes this lack of form and confidence is a question worth posing.
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Stats highlights from the fourth ODI between India and West Indies in Dharamsala