Giving one-dayers the cold shoulder
When did the English fall out of love with one-day cricket? They did, after all, invent the game. It started with county cricket's Gillette Cup in 1963, it continued with the inaugural one-day international against Australia in January 1971, and then they hosted three consecutive World Cups from 1975 to 1983. In the last four years they've even pioneered the Twenty20 version of the game.
And yet, a Cricinfo poll at the end of 2006 showed that, among British fans, more than 90% rated England's defense of the Ashes more important than a successful World Cup, an imbalance that was borne out by those most visible and vocal of supporters, the Barmy Army. More than 1700 fans signed up for the Army's official Test tours. For the one-dayers, however, there were a mere seven.
It wasn't always like this. In fact, there was a time, not so long ago, when England's Test side was in the doldrums, but they were arguably the best one-day team in the world. Such a claim might cause loud spluttering noises in the West Indies, India, Australia, Sri Lanka and Pakistan - the five countries that have laid their mitts on the only prize that counts. But between 1979 and 1992, England did finish as runners-up in three tournaments out of four, which does hint at the sort of consistency that is so lacking from the modern-day side.
Consider, in particular, the side that finished second to Pakistan on that balmy Melbourne night in March 1992. That, quite plausibly, was the greatest England one-day line-up that has ever been compiled, and undoubtedly a contender for the top ten of all time. There was the captain, Graham Gooch, a hard-bitten disciplinarian at the peak of his world-class powers. There was Graeme Hick, as imposing in one-day cricket as he was disappointing in Tests; there was Neil Fairbrother, England's original nurdler, a forebear of the Bevan-Hussey school of finishing.
There was Alec Stewart, worth his place for his strokeplay alone but utterly invaluable as a wicketkeeper and second-in-command to Gooch. There was Allan Lamb, as bristling a middle-order batsman as has ever existed, and a man who once stole an ODI for England by slamming Bruce Reid for 18 in the final over. And propping up the lower-middle order there was a quartet of genuine allround talent in Chris Lewis, Phil DeFreitas, Dermot Reeve and Derek Pringle.
It's the sort of multi-dimensional line-up that Duncan Fletcher has spent seven fruitless years trying to emulate. Even the No. 11, the job-a-day left-arm spinner, Richard Illingworth, had four first-class centuries to his name. Oh yeah, and then there was whatsitsname ... you know, thingummy ... that bloke who opened the batting and chipped in when needed with his portly medium-pacers. When the mighty Ian Botham is the weak link in your eleven, then you know you've got it sussed.
With a place in the next round up for grabs, a disciplined bowling performance left England needing an obtainable 237 from 50 overs. They had reached a handy 62 for 0 after 12 when the rain and its rules swept across Melbourne to change the face of the chase. England had nine overs lopped off their innings, but only 11 runs taken off the target, and suddenly they needed 227 from 41.
Up stepped Fairbrother, a stalwart of the Lancashire side that was dominating the county one-day scene at the start of the 1990s. For him, the situation seemed like just another stroll in the Sunday League park. English cricket at that time was played over 60, 55 and 40 overs, and the average county pro would compete in upwards of 25 such matches in a season. England as a unit had experience of all eventualities. There was no need to panic. Fairbrother ticked off the runs in an unbeaten 75, and England won with three wickets and one ball to spare.
Such no-frills functionality was what carried England to the brink of glory. They became the odds-on favourites once Australia had fallen by the wayside, not least when they bundled those perpetual mavericks, Pakistan, out for 74 at Adelaide. But then, in the final, came two balls of brilliance from Wasim Akram, and the entire complexion of the tournament changed - and with it, arguably, England's whole outlook on one-day cricket.
How do you legislate for genius, especially in the confined corridors of a limited-overs international? Those consecutive deliveries to Lamb and Lewis derailed a run-chase that England had, more or less, under control and confirmed to England what South Africa would also discover around the turn of the millennium - specifically at the hands of Shane Warne at Edgbaston in 1999. All the disciplines in the world won't protect you if brilliance comes to call.
Back in the early 1990s, the difference wasn't nearly so marked. By the 1992 World Cup only one player, Allan Border, had amassed more than 200 one-day caps. In yesterday's ODI at Cuttack, on the other hand, there were three Indians, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly, with almost 1000 caps between them. The England team that was defeated at Adelaide this week, by way of comparison, had mustered 416.
It can't be right for a senior international team to sulk and point to inexperience every time they get defeated, but then again, does any fan of the game really want to see England play 250 ODIs in the next four years, just so that Flintoff's cap count compares more favourably with Ajit Agarkar's?
Besides, if the lesson of 1992 is anything to go by, the hard yards are irrelevant in one-day cricket. All it takes is a single flash of inspiration to win a World Cup. If Pietersen and Flintoff are primed by the time the team touch down in the Caribbean, anything could happen. But, let's face it, it is a huge, huge if.
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Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo