Under-19 World Cup, Sri Lanka January 18, 2006

One game at a time for England

England's new captain Moeen Ali © Getty Images

As preparations for a major tournament go, an 11-0 pasting in Bangladesh was as demoralising as it was unexpected for an England side which had sailed through the summer with crushing victories against Sri Lanka. Now with the World Cup in Sri Lanka looming, England need to bounce back - and fast.

To this end they have new strategies, new players and a new captain, the outrageously talented batsman Moeen Ali who turned professional aged just 15. "It's a massive honour," says Ali, now 18. "To be honest I didn't expect it at all."

His coming-of-age has been swift. "Three months ago I used to mess about and have a joke but now I take life more seriously. I don't know why." England's coach Andy Pick is at a loss to explain the lightning-quick transformation, too. "I don't know what it is, I've never seen anyone change so fast," he says, but whatever it was, the awesome Ali was immediately rewarded with a chance to shine as captain.

"He's got all the shots and when on form people can't bowl against him," Pick says. "He was easily the best against Sri Lanka. But natural talent on its own won't be enough. He's far more grown-up and level-headed now." As if to prove this point Ali announces: "I get on well with everybody and I hope that if there's a problem they could talk to me. I want to set an example for people to follow in performing well all the time."

But what of the deposed captain, Varun Chopra? "It is disappointing - I would have liked to captain," Chopra, who will vice-captain the side instead, admits unsurprisingly. "But it gives me more of an opportunity to concentrate on my batting."

Varun Chopra in action © Getty Images

The opening batsman had a largely indifferent tour with the bat - although he came good towards the end with a 77 and a 98 - but Pick says the decision was no slight on the capable Chopra who had, after all, led his country to a clean sweep in the Tests and one-dayers against Sri Lanka in the summer and performed creditably himself. "Varun captained the side in contrasting series. Results are no reflection of his leadership qualities. Moeen has come to the fore and deserves a go."

Chopra says loyally of Ali: "He's my best mate in the team and I will be able to help out with advice, too." Ali is equally complimentary: "Varun's a very good captain. It will be good for me. He's someone I can talk to a lot."

The pair, who have been very firmly tipped for the top, will need to be at their brilliant best if they are to lead England to the trophy they last won in 1997-98 under Owais Shah. For Ali, there is no doubt: "We will definitely win it and play either Bangladesh or India in the final." Chopra is more cautious: "We're going to take it one match at a time and aim for the quarter-finals".

It's a view shared by Pick. "That's very honourable and patriotic of Moeen," he smiles, "but I think I'm a little closer to what Varun says. Even so, I would be bitterly, bitterly disappointed if we didn't get to the quarter-finals."

England have been drawn in a group with Nepal, Ireland and Zimbabwe. "We've been fortunate with our group," says Pick, "although that's not to underestimate any of the teams. Eoin Morgan of Ireland, for example, is a quality player. He only needs to hit 120 to derail our World Cup campaign.

"I would imagine India will be favourites," he adds. "They are a strong side who won the Afro-Asia Cup."

Most of the teams will be an unknown quantity, chopping and changing as they do at this level. "To be honest we only know Bangladesh and Sri Lanka," says Chopra, "so we are concentrating on playing to our potential."

Ah yes, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. How did they lose so badly on the winter tour? "We underestimated them both a little bit," says Ali. "We knew it would be hard against Sri Lanka although we smashed them here. Bangladesh we always thought we had a chance of beating, but couldn't get in the winning rhythm - a few times we should have finished them off."

"It definitely wasn't expected," admits Chopra, while Pick explains: "We went out there having had a three-month break from outdoor cricket, which they hadn't had. We also had to adjust to getting up at half-six for a match starting at quarter to eight." The list goes on. "A change of team," adds Ali, "a lot of new players. It spun a lot and was hot. We had injuries and illnesses - a lot of bad luck. But, we learnt more by losing every game rather than winning. Everyone's learnt how to live better as a team, how to eat better."

"The pitches in Bangladesh are a lot different to English conditions," says Chopra. "As the tour went on we were bowling better lengths." Also, they had a lot more exposure to spin. "I'm not saying we've cracked it [playing spin]," admits Pick. "But I hope we have learnt something."

Debriefs and rebriefs at the ECB Academy followed while a chastened England tried to make sense of their drubbing and regroup in time to challenge for the honours. "It's easy to get bullish in the classroom at Loughborough," says Pick, "but we have to take that on the field and prove ourselves then."

Their first opportunity comes in Malaysia, essentially an acclimatisation tour but, with three warm-up games, it is one which will take on great psychological significance, as Ali acknowledges: "We have to get back into the winning rhythm."

And they need confidence, too. "You have to believe," says Pick. "I do believe and the players do too."

Jenny Thompson is assistant editor of Cricinfo