India v England, 2nd ODI, Indore November 17, 2008

Lack of punch leaves England lagging

England were better today, although that isn't saying much after their 158-run pounding in Rajkot


Kevin Pietersen is England's best one-day batsman and needs to go back to No. 3 © Getty Images
 
England were better today, although that isn't saying much after their 158-run pounding in Rajkot. By some crude calculations they made a match out of it in Indore for approximately 20 overs - the time when Stuart Broad nipped out three early wickets and the five-over Powerplay between Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff. But that leaves fourth-fifths of the game where they were made to look second-rate again. Make no mistake, this was another thrashing.

Two matches into a seven-game series and it is difficult to see how England can stop the Indian juggernaut. The 4-0 series against South Africa always needed some context and in the cold light of day England are still an average one-day side away from home. They lack two vital qualities which India have in spades; power-hitting at the top of the order and match-winning (or match-controlling) spin. That's not to say the side doesn't have potential, but both those missing qualities will have to be rectified if they want to make an impact at the 2011 World Cup which will be staged across Asia.

The fifth-wicket stand between Pietersen and Flintoff, worth 74 in 12 overs, was fun while it lasted, but only served to emphasise the problems. When they came together England were 109 for 3 in the 26th over, chasing a target that was almost a run-a-ball before the innings started. The chase was so far behind the rate, that even a third Powerplay that resulted in 59 runs only brought it down to eight-and-a-half an over. With an asking rate of that level there is no room to manoeuvre, because any new batsman is robbed of the right to play himself in. When Yuvraj Singh continued his one-man match-winning display with two wickets in four balls it was game over.

England's top three is constantly under the microscope - and there is no easy solution - but Ian Bell, Matt Prior and Owais Shah don't pack enough punch to get the innings off to a flyer. Prior and Shah added 96 today, but it was never a stand that threatened India. Compare this to the progress of India who, despite being 29 for 3 after Broad's new-ball spell, repaired the innings at such a rate that the innings was soon running away from England. It doesn't help England's cause that each of their chosen top three, for differing reasons, are still not entirely confident of their roles in the side. Compare that to the confidence that Yuvraj has displayed - he had no form whatsoever coming into this series, but plenty of happy memories of belting English bowlers to all corners of the world.

Virender Sehwag failed on this occasion, but there are plenty of batsmen to carry the charge forward in this team. On this occasion it was achieved by clever batting and sharp running, but all the top order can hit boundaries and clear the infield. Bell is too much of a stylist to look entirely comfortable taking the aerial route, while Shah's best innings have been at No. 6 - including his century against India in 2007 - and he was becoming one of the team's best death-hitters before he was promoted. That leaves Prior, who needs to be told that his role is to attack and hang the consequences. The risk of getting out early comes with the territory of Prior's role. Or at least it should.

 
 
It requires a change of mindset from England - and probably a change of order. They need to realise that it's vital to set the pace early in an innings because playing catch-up against the spinners later on is a tough ask
 

It requires a change of mindset from England - and probably a change of order. They need to realise that it's vital to set the pace early in an innings because playing catch-up against the spinners later on - even with the delayed Powerplay - is a tough ask. Pietersen is the team's best batsman and it's time he went back to the No. 3 spot he briefly occupied earlier this year. He says he is comfortable in his current home, but there seems little sense in a team's major force only having half an innings to face.

Even a brief glance at some of the world's leading one-day batsmen of current and recent fame brings up a list of No. 3s, or those who batted in the top three - Ricky Ponting, Brian Lara, Sanath Jayasuriya, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Matthew Hayden…it's possible to go on. And it isn't as though Pietersen hasn't had success at No.3. He made a brilliant, unbeaten 110 against New Zealand in June.

The England management will no doubt argue that there's no point chopping and changing, and their players need to learn their roles. But one-day cricket is also about flexibility and adapting to conditions. There would be no disgrace if Pietersen and Peter Moores admitted that these two defeats have prompted a rethink. In fact, it would be quite refreshing.

England's thinking is also muddled further down the order. Having Ravi Bopara lurking at No. 8 is a waste, especially when it's clear Pietersen doesn't consider him a bowling option. In the long term, Bopara can be the No. 4 who splits Pietersen and Flintoff, but if the selectors don't think he's ready for that role yet, it means there shouldn't be room for him and Samit Patel in the same side.

England appear to be resigned to chasing huge totals, and therefore need all the batting they can muster. However, strengthening the bowling might make the batsmen's life easier. Graeme Swann must be wondering what he has to do to get back into this line-up. He was one of the key components in the series win in Sri Lanka last year, but is now on the sidelines while Patel is shown up as the part-time bowler he is, despite Pietersen's view that "he's doing a good job." England have suffered from an obsession with bits-and-pieces players for too long. India is the place for specialists. Patel is a batsman, so he can be the safeguard at No. 7 and let Swann show that his Sri Lanka success was no fluke.

Andrew McGlashan is a staff writer at Cricinfo

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