Superstars shine at the right time
It was perhaps unfortunate timing that Sean Morris, the chairman of the Professional Cricketers Association, chose to voice the grievances of England's cricketers on the very same day that their opponents in Saturday's winner-takes-all showdown chose to uncoil their best and most coruscating form.
"It really boils down to turning up and coming out on a wicket which isn't really suitable for international cricket, with lights that make it very difficult for catching," Morris said on the morning of the match. "That gives you the feeling you are turning up to a bit of a garden party, which shouldn't really be the case with England cricket."
Andre Fletcher, the swatter of seven monstrous sixes in an unbeaten 90, and Kieron Pollard, who clubbed Tyron Henderson, the leading wicket-taker in Twenty20 history, for three vast blows in a row in the final over of the Superstars innings, are unlikely to have heard these comments. Nor indeed Darren Sammy, who made a pair of stratospheric skyers look as simple as catching thistledown in a sunny meadow in May. But if they did, then they couldn't have scripted a better retort. If England are looking for wine and canapés, then they've turned up to the wrong island.
The ebullience that the Superstars demonstrated was at total odds to the hearty sickness that England showed in their outing against Trinidad & Tobago on Tuesday. Admittedly, many of the players had been laid low with a stomach bug, and as a unit they performed ballsily to claw their way to a tightly fought and challenging victory. But the joie de vivre that is so essential to the Twenty20 format was demonstrably absent from their efforts, and unless they can unclutter their consciences and look Stanford's gift horse straight in the mouth, then they will be flying home with less than just their dignity.
"There's a serious game of cricket taking place on Saturday," Middlesex's impressed captain, Shaun Udal, said. "They are a real threat. But England have got to go out and play their best cricket, simple as that. It's not the players' fault they've been put in this position. They've been offered an awful lot of money to play a couple of Twenty20 games, and it all results in Saturday night, where they could become dollar millionaires overnight.
"They've been put in that position - and there's not one person in this room who wouldn't like that opportunity - but I still think there's a twist in the tail. There could be someone under that catch and it doesn't go their way, and that could be preying on their minds. But that's how Sir Allen Stanford works. It's winner-takes-all in his business, and this is what he wants to put on a great show. It's about who rises to the occasion and who diminishes their responsibility."
Fletcher and Pollard are virtually unknown to England's cricketers. They have a combined age of 42, and have played just four ODIs and a Twenty20 each. The additional pace of Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison may yet temper their youthful abandon, but their philosophy on the game is simple enough to give their experienced opponents, quite literally, a run for their money
"Twenty20 is a fast version of the game, but I approach as if it's a one-day game," Fletcher said. "If it's not there to hit, I look for singles; if it's there, I hit it. It's just a natural thing in all of us. If it's there, I rely on my strength and go for it. I guess we expect England to go back and figure us out, but we will do the same thing."
See ball, hit ball. That's pretty much what the Superstars have been practicing during their six-week camp in Antigua, where they have been building themselves as a team, and using the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the conditions at Stanford's private ground.
|"I still think there's a twist in the tail"Shaun Udal|
"In the Caribbean we don't prepare for long periods," Pollard said, "but this gave us time to work on our techniques and practice watching ball as long as possible. And our fitness, because when you're fit you're ready for anything. England are above us in the ICC rankings, but we are quietly confident. If we do the basics right, everything will happen for us."
Middlesex were never given a prayer in this contest, not even when Chris Gayle ended an eventful week with a horrendous second-ball grubber. "They've done their homework," Udal said. "They hit straighter, with less cross-batted shots. Fletcher set the tone and Pollard at the end was frightening. Obviously the pace of the bowling will be different, and I don't think there'll be as many low full tosses as we delivered, but if they approach it like they did tonight, it's going to be a tight game."
Udal, however, still backed England to overcome their mixed feelings and prevail in the end. "They are playing for their country, and there's no way any of them will want to lose, regardless of the money on show," he said. "Eion Morgan said the other day, that even if we weren't playing for US$280,000 we'd still have wanted to be here, having a two-week holiday on a beautiful island. Obviously it's different with a million at stake, but at the end of the day if that gets in the way, it clouds the issue. If England win a cricket match, everything takes care of itself."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo