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December 10, 2005
Given the tools at their disposal, it is arguable whether England have ever produced a more perfectly paced one-day batting performance. In essence, they had three categories of player on display - the pinch-hitters, for want of a better word, in Marcus Trescothick and Matt Prior; the nurdlers in Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood; and the flair performers, Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen. With the exception of Trescothick, who chose the wrong delivery to lift over the ring, each and every man played his role to perfection.
The most striking aspect of England's play today was the manner in which the baton was passed from performer to performer, with scarcely a break in stride. Strauss's 94 was rightly hailed as the pivotal effort. He mustered 44 runs in four Test innings before missing the Lahore Test for paternity leave, but snuck back into the side with one of the most anonymous Man-of-the-Match displays on record. With first Pietersen and then Flintoff bracketing his batting with typically lusty blows, Strauss's score crept up by stealth.
"We're very very fortunate to have two world-class players in Flintoff and Pietersen," admitted Strauss afterwards, "and we need guys who can work it around, bat around the big hitters, and get them back on strike." He could hardly have fulfilled his brief more impressively.
Nor, for that matter, could Prior. Last winter it was Geraint Jones who stepped up to the opener's role for the tour of South Africa, but Duncan Fletcher values his talents further down the order, where his finishing skills were not today called upon. Instead it was the more muscular Prior who was shooed in for the Powerplay overs, and he responded with a hard-hitting 45 from 55 balls, an ideal launchpad for the thumpers that lay beyond.
With Collingwood scampering the singles to offset Flintoff's power at the tailend of the innings, England's innings could scarcely have unfolded more purposefully, even if Flintoff played one or two air shots to Shoaib Akhtar that betrayed his jadedness at the end of a long tour. Tomorrow night comes the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, and his probable 3am coronation. Monday's match could prove a bit of a struggle.
It was certainly a struggle with the ball for Flintoff, and that was perhaps the only truly alarming aspect of the day for England. His first five overs were clubbed for 46 runs as he trundled in at 80mph, and this from the man who was the most economical bowler at the 2003 World Cup. On another day, his shortcomings could have proved ruinous - let's face it, Australia had earlier in the day failed to defend a total of 331.
But while England's batting, their World Cup trump card, purred with contented harmony, it was their bowling - the undoubted weaker side of their game - that sealed the contest, and in particular, three bowlers who for various reasons might never have imagined this opportunity would arise.
Jimmy Anderson had been on the sidelines for such a long time until his four wickets against Pakistan A at Bagh-e-Jinnah confirmed his place in the starting line-up, and showed his rehabilitation as an international performer is underway. On recent tours, England have not known quite what to do with their boy wonder whose flame had flickered, but now there is a definite goal in sight. Another World Cup, and on today's evidence, he intends to be leading the attack in 15 months' time.
So too does Liam Plunkett, England's latest boy wonder, who turned in a remarkably solid performance at a time when Pakistan's innings could have gone either way. "It was a fantastic effort to come in on debut and bowl so well," said Strauss afterwards. "It's not easy when the ball is being dispatched to all parts, and when you've got no experience to fall back on."
Plunkett's strength is strength. He bowled with a muscular upright action and kept within his limitations, which bodes well for his development as a frontline option. Anderson had more magic in his bowling when he too burst onto the scene as a 20-year-old, which meant there was less to fall back on when the stardust failed to sprinkle.
The final member of England's up-and-coming troika was Ian Blackwell, ambiguously referred to as "Ian B" on the electronic scoreboard. He was another member of the 2003 World Cup squad who faded from view, but Ashley Giles's injury has given him a timely chance to cement a place as England's spinning option. He wheeled his way through 10 tidy overs, conceding just 45 runs in the process and extracting some appreciable turn at times as well.
Perhaps even more excitingly for England, Blackwell was inked in at No. 9 for this match. That is a scandalously low position for someone who hits the ball with quite such thrilling power as he does. If the Somerset captaincy has galvanised his game to the extent that this initial performance might hint, then England's batting could yet be even more powerful come the World Cup.
But then again, let's not get ahead of ourselves. After a tour in which England's ambitions have been thwarted at every turn, it is only in the final analysis that anything can truly be read into this effort, promising though the initial signs may be.
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