World Cup 2011 February 28, 2011

Bresnan's brilliance marks return of England's fire

Tim Bresnan scalped Sehwag in his first over, claimed three wickets in four balls in his last, and was the only bowler on a night of extraordinary strokeplay who displayed the range of skills required

The players' emotions at the end of a pulsating contest were shredded, but one man's grimace told the tale of the tape as far England's post-match debrief will be concerned. Amid the hugs, shrugs, smiles and dislocated sense of occasion, Andy Flower's face wore the wan look of a man who knew a massive opportunity had been allowed to slip away.

England had history in their grasp on Sunday night in Bangalore, and a one-day powerhouse at their mercy. Although they contrived to win the contest twice - first through the clarity of their captain's strokeplay, and then through the gutsiness of their tail-end escape plan - they lost it so badly in between whiles that a share of the spoils was the only fair result.

In the final analysis it may not matter at all. In the peculiarly protracted format that's been chosen for this World Cup, only those teams who really make a meal of the group stages will be going home early - and if ever there was an opponent against whom England's strategists would have budgeted for nil point, it was the hosts and World Cup favourites, India.

And yet, there's more at stake for England than mere subsistence in the coming weeks. That they have performed like paupers in the past four editions of the World Cup might give them reason to think that a spirited show of competence will suffice this time around, but that's not how Flower of all people played his cricket, and it's not how he plots it now. He's in it to win it, and nothing less will do. An astonishing spectacle was served up in Bangalore on Sunday, but satisfaction was thin on the ground among the main protagonists.

It perhaps epitomises England's missed opportunity that two of their players will struggle to improve on their performances at Bangalore - not just in this World Cup but for the rest of their one-day careers. Andrew Strauss's 158 was an astonishingly rounded innings from a player who was pigeonholed as a Test specialist at the end of the last World Cup, but has now scored nearly 2000 runs in the two years since his ODI recall. That he beat Sachin Tendulkar to the Man-of-the-Match award, and that there were not howls of protestation from a fevered crowd, says it all about a performance that will struggle to be bettered this year.

However, as James Anderson later pointed out in a "batter's game" grumble on Twitter, the worthier recipient would arguably have been Tim Bresnan, who scalped Sehwag in his first over, claimed three wickets in four balls in his last, and was the only bowler on a night of extraordinary strokeplay who displayed the range of skills required to be a threat in all phases of a 50-over innings, and the expertise to execute them on demand.

In a game consisting of 676 runs, Bresnan's feat of five wickets at 4.8 an over was outstanding, as he extrapolated the lessons he learned during England's triumphant Twenty20 campaign, and made sure he treated every single delivery as an event in its own right. "All career you work on it, and you deliver under pressure because that what you're trained to do," was his modest self-appraisal on the morning after the match.

The lessons learned against the Dutch were many and varied, but two stood out in England's performance against India. Firstly, it ain't over 'til the 50 overs are done; secondly, towering run-chases are feasible on Indian wickets

All the same, the manner in which he silenced a rampant Sehwag was superb, as he limited him to two runs in four balls before luring a dab to the keeper, and of the 60 deliveries that he bowled in the innings, a mere two - both to Tendulkar - resulted in shots for which he could be deemed culpable. His downbeat demeanour means he'll rarely be anything other than under-estimated, but after a starring role in the Ashes decider at Melbourne, and now this, he'll do well to remain unrecognised for long.

And that's before you even factor in the manner in which Bresnan fronted up with his second string, as his belligerent brand of Yorkshire thwacking launched the second wave of England's victory push. He was later reprimanded by the ICC for smacking his stumps after being bowled by Piyush Chawla, but the more significant blow was the straight six he had belted off the previous ball of the over, to reduce the requirement from 20 to 14, and make possible the madcap antics of the game's final over.

Though victory eluded them, the good news for England is that they've set about banishing the bad vibes from their wretched one-day series in Australia. There was never much danger of that campaign lingering long in the mind's eye - barely a month has passed but already the details are hazy beyond the 6-1 scoreline - but the wider concern was the damage such a slack-witted itinerary would have done to the razor-sharp competitiveness that England had honed in the build-up to the Ashes.

A scratchy warm-up victory over Canada and an even dicier display against the Dutch did not augur well for the greater challenges that lay ahead, but true to their protestations during their three-day stop-over in London, England really did find a way to turn on the intensity when it mattered. Some have taken rather longer than Strauss and Bresnan to locate their A games and run with them (and one man, Anderson, is still searching rather forlornly) but there's no questioning the competitive fires that still burn within this set of players.

No-one quite believed it at the time, but that Netherlands hurry-up turned out to be the perfect preparation for England. In Australia, defeat had been allowed to become endemic, but the mitigating circumstances were so widespread, and the interest in the series so minimal, that humiliation was simply off the agenda. The prospect of failing on the world stage against a bunch of Dutch part-timers, however, was so unpalatable, it was arguably the greatest incentive they had encountered since their Ashes-levelling defeat in Perth back in December.

The lessons learned in Nagpur were many and varied, but two stood out in England's performance against India. Firstly, it ain't over 'til the 50 overs are done, whether that's in the field or with the bat. Against the Dutch, with a wave of helplessness sweeping over them as Ryan ten Doeschate's innings gathered late momentum, England looked, mentally, as though they'd already uprooted the stumps and fled the scene with six overs remaining. A spectacular rash of errors - fumbles, beamers, positional transgressions - filled the void where their professional standards had previously been.

On Sunday, however, those closing overs were an entirely different story. England should by rights have been facing a total at least equal to the 370 that Bangladesh conceded to Virender Sehwag and Virat Kohli in Dhaka, or maybe even the 387 that Yuvraj Singh created in the first match of the 5-0 whitewash in 2008-09. Instead they remembered to keep their shape despite the pummelling they were receiving, and through the skill of Bresnan's yorkers, they scalped seven wickets in 25 balls.

The second lesson was that towering run-chases are feasible on Indian wickets. "The pitch is flat, let's beat them" was the gist of Strauss's team-talk, and again, it was precisely because England had no option but to save face against the Dutch that they went out and gave it their best shot - and in so doing, they realised the task was actually easier than perhaps they'd believed it could be. Had any other team put 292 on the board against a side coming off the back of a 6-1 series defeat, it would have been far easier to take refuge in nearly-but-not-quites. Just as England have been doing in one-day cricket for 16 years, in fact.

Collectively, England remain a flawed outfit, and since the injury to Eoin Morgan, they have had issues of balance that may yet prove fatal in their bid for the ultimate prize. Ravi Bopara's batting might have made the difference had he been selected against India, though Paul Collingwood's cutters are an asset that England will not cast aside lightly. Meanwhile Stuart Broad's stomach upset was as untimely as his stomach tear during the Ashes. But from what we've witnessed so far in this competition, they are willing and able to dig deep in the face of adversity.

And that is as it should be, because for a hard taskmaster such as Flower, there's always more shovelling to be done.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo