World Cup countdown begins
A nation gripped by their team's football fortunes might not appear unduly concerned with the next year's World Cup in 2007, but the England selectors' palms will be sweating furiously on the eve of the first of five one-dayers against Sri Lanka. England's one-day line-up is as unsettled as ever; as has been the case for the past three tournaments, they appear blindly expectant that their best side will appear, magically, come next March. Worryingly, they have just 19 matches remaining in which to blood a host of young talent.
The call-up of Glen Chapple, aged 32, was a case in point. Why now? Why not four years ago? Predictably, and sadly, the injury that he picked up during England's defeat of Ireland at Stormont could mark the end of an unfairly brief outing in international cricket.
Indeed, Ireland's effort to hold up England will have pleased Sri Lanka no end, who took advantage of England's inexperience when they inflicted a two-run defeat in the Twenty20 on Thursday at The Rose Bowl. Like England though, they are a team in transition; it is ten years since they won the World Cup and they recently slipped to sixth in the world, a fact Farveez Maharoof, their exciting allrounder, contested this week when he said Sri Lanka "will be a threat" in the World Cup.
As if England's troubles couldn't get any worse, Ed Joyce, who has been on the fringe of selection for two seasons, turned his ankle while attempting a catch during England's defeat last night. Although the hospital confirmed he hadn't sustained a fracture, the extent of his injury won't be known until further scans are undertaken. He is most likely to join Chapple on the sidelines for the duration of the series. Indeed, not just Chapple.
England are captained by Andrew Strauss, the unofficial favourite to take over from Michael Vaughan whose knee continues to worry everyone but the Australians. Andrew Flintoff is absent injured too and, with his hotchpotch of a squad preparing to take on Sri Lanka tomorrow, Duncan Fletcher's normally unbending resolve is starting to wane.
"I don't know where to turn," Fletcher admitted. "Poor old Ed Joyce has taken some time to qualify then gets his game and is injured. Glen Chapple has been on the fringes for some time, suddenly makes it, and is then injured and it just keeps going on and on."
Strauss, though, was insistent that England had the class and ability to turn things around.
"A lot of the time we've been without our most experienced players in the one-day game, guys have got injured in Test matches and gone home," he said. "That doesn't help but, if we're honest with ourselves, we'd say we haven't played quite to our capabilities, certainly in the last two away series [against Pakistan and India].
"But we did pretty well against Australia last year, the best side in the world," he added. "That shows we are capable of beating any side, all we have to do now is get that consistency."
Much as England's hell-raising Twenty20 win over Australia ignited their summer, so might Sri Lanka's victory last night inspire them to greater things. They could hardly be more buoyant, despite a couple of county losses; this is a side bristling with determination after their superb effort to draw the Test series.
"Winning is a good habit and under pressure the guys performed, which is all positive," said their captain, Mahela Jayawardene. "It gave us a lot of confidence, especially without Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan in the side. It's good because we want to have a squad of players we can take through to the World Cup so, if we have injuries, we have adequate back-up."
Tomorrow's match at Lord's gets underway at 10.30BST.
Will Luke is editorial assistant of Cricinfo