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Another day, another defeat, another wave of deafening indifference. England and one-day cricket don't even pretend to mix at the moment
April 7, 2006
If England in one-day cricket are bad, then England in one-day cricket overseas are abysmal - they have not won a significant series away from home since late 1997. Theories abound as to why this should be so, and the modern-day habit of staging the ODIs after the Tests is the favourite excuse. One minute the team are on board celebratory yachts in Mumbai harbour, the next they are being subjected to an endless ennui of internal flights and departure-lounge card-games. Not even Andrew Flintoff's relentless good humour was designed to cope with that.
Even the coach is beginning to shrug his shoulders at the futility of it all. It wasn't so long ago that Duncan Fletcher was an unabashed cheerleader of one-day cricket - the only form of the game, coincidentally, that he himself played at international level. One of his earliest initiatives as coach, in October 2001, was to shoehorn an extra five-match tour of Zimbabwe into the itinerary to give his rookie squad some much-needed experience, and three years later, during England's unbeaten Test run in 2004, he called publicly for more one-day internationals and fewer Tests. That particular suggestion went down like a bottle of Tizer at an Ashes piss-up.
Fletcher's outlook is somewhat different now. Perhaps it's because he's a fully-assimilated British citizen these days, and an OBE to boot, but after the events of last summer, he'll never again be questioning where his team's priorities should lie. On Wednesday, the 143rd edition of the Wisden Cricketers' Almanack hits the shops. From the characters on the Primrose-yellow dust-jacket to the 70-page series review within, there's no doubting what the theme of the year is to be. England is braced for a dual wave of Ashes 2005 nostalgia on the one hand, and a surge of Ashes 2006-07 build-up on the other.
So that's it really. There is no priority to match that priority, and for all the protestations that England are using every match of the current series to build for the 2007 World Cup, a comparison of the enthusiasm levels between the final day at Mumbai and the final hours at Cochin paint a truer picture. One-day matches between now and next March are about as relevant and memorable as the 16 v 17-man warm-up that took place at the Brabourne Stadium at the start of the tour. Fletcher knows, as his England team know, that getting in the groove is all that counts in these soon-to-be-forgotten farangoes.
How else would you explain the bizarre selection of Matt Prior and Geraint Jones in the same XI? There's no way on earth that combination will survive for the next 11 months. Come the World Cup, Marcus Trescothick will be reinstated as opener (regardless of the circumstances, he has undoubtedly earned his first proper break for six years) and one of the two will take the gloves and a permanent berth in the middle-order. England are doing nothing but treading water at present, while soaking up an atmosphere that is second to none anywhere else in the world. If they can immunise themselves to the crowds out here, they'll find the sledging in St Lucia a doddle to overcome.
Last week, in a disarmingly clear-headed expression of forward planning, Fletcher announced to the world that 10 members of his World Cup line-up were effectively set in stone. "We have a very good idea of what our strongest one-day side is," he told the assembled media. "If everyone's fit and ready to go there is probably only one position we would want to look at sometime over the coming weeks."
And why should we doubt him? An inevitable game of "Guess Who?" followed that pronunciation, with most observers deciding that the No. 9 berth was the vacancy in question, where James Anderson, Liam Plunkett and Kabir Ali are among the current jostlers. But the issue in its entirety is a red herring. Fletcher knows his men inside-out, and he knows who he backs to come good when it matters.
Let's face it. Trescothick, Kevin Pietersen and Flintoff are among the most explosive one-day batsmen in the world; Paul Collingwood and Andrew Strauss are adept at nudging the singles and can act as perfect foils - as they did to such telling effect at Lahore in one of England's rare moments of success this winter. And with a sniff of incentive in their nostrils, a bowling attack led by Flintoff, Steve Harmison and - if he's still fit after the Ashes - Simon Jones, will be unmatched for sheer incisiveness by any team other than Pakistan.
And what is it that's meant to whet the players' appetite? The ICC Cricket World Cup West Indies 2007, a tournament so unconvinced of its own importance that it needs such a cumbersome title, will feature 16 teams, of which roughly half are utter makeweights. It will last for 47 days, and yet will not begin in earnest until the Super Eights get underway in the second fortnight. At that juncture, three wins out of six could suffice to scrape a place in the semis, and then it's over to inspiration.
Don't forget, England reached the final of the Champions Trophy in 2004, and shared the spoils with Australia in the NatWest Series last summer. They aren't always entirely feckless when it comes to one-day cricket but, after campaigns in 1999 and 2003 that couldn't have gone worse if they'd tried, expectations this time around are at rock-bottom. No-one in England really cares if they bomb or expects that they won't.
And besides, if all has gone to plan in the months that precede the World Cup, the team will be forgiven any multitude of sins. It's going to take rather more than just turning up on the day if England are to retain the Ashes in Australia next winter. For starters, they'll want to be led there by the man who scored 633 runs in his last series Down Under. The surest way to ensure Michael Vaughan is fit enough for his final frontier as captain is to drop him from one-day cricket, where his average continues to flounder, and where turning ones into twos is an invitation to the grievous knee injury we all fear awaits him.
And if England really are contemplating dropping the pilot in the coming weeks and months, then it's little wonder they're not too bothered about coasting through their current slough. As far as the coming 12 months are concerned, they've got their priorities spot on.
Graeme Smith was the last of South Africa's old guard. The roots of the new one need to grow deeper