World Cup 2007 April 1, 2007

Fletcher still trying to teach the basics



Duncan Fletcher again spent a press conference defending England's under-par performances © Getty Images
England have arrived in Antigua for a week that could well make or break their World Cup campaign. They face two matches in the space of five days against Sri Lanka and Australia - two of the four teams who, along with New Zealand and South Africa, have been all but inked into most pundits' semi-final shake-downs. Victory in either, or preferably both, will propel England ever closer to the next round. Back-to-back defeats, on the other hand, will all but ensure their early flight home.

On current evidence, however, England have no right to be anywhere near the semi-finals. They have been ponderous and uninspiring in their four matches to date, not least in their 48-run victory over Ireland in Guyana on Friday - a match that Duncan Fletcher, their coach, admitted had been laced with a tinge of complacency.

"I don't think we played as well as we could have, there's no doubt about it," said Fletcher. "It was still an important win from our point of view, because we could have slipped up. But there are areas we can work on. We got a little complacent at times, and we need to make sure don't get that complacent against better sides."

It's an extraordinary admission to make, especially in light of Australia's furious trouncing of Bangladesh at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium on Saturday. "There are no easy games in this tournament," Ricky Ponting said after that ten-wicket victory, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And yet, if Australia's next opponents are to be believed, this whole World Cup campaign is a bit of a breeze really.

Maybe it is preferable from Fletcher's point of view to give the impression that England are a good side going through a slack phase, rather than a bad side struggling to stay afloat. Last week, the 144th edition of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack was published, and featured a broadside against a coach under whose leadership England had managed, at once, to be "worn out but under-prepared; complacent yet over-apprehensive; inward-looking yet dysfunctional as a unit; closeted yet distracted."

Fletcher himself brushed aside the criticism, insisting his focus was on the tournament and nothing else, but listening to him talk about England's need to master the basics was further evidence of the gulf that exists between the best and the rest in this tournament. "The most crucial thing is that we must play to our strengths with the players available to us," he said, implying that England are still - even at this crucial juncture of the biggest tournament of all - hankering after the men who did not make this trip; the likes of Marcus Trescothick, Simon Jones, Steve Harmison and (knowing Fletcher) Ashley Giles.

"Maybe we'll change a few things," Fletcher added, hinting that Andrew Strauss could come into consideration for a recall, "though maybe that would be dangerous at this stage. But we mustn't ask players to do things that are foreign to them, because that could really be pretty disastrous. All our players must play to their strengths."

Quite what those strengths are, however, remains a moot point. England's sluggish scoring and scattergun new-ball bowling has provided cause for concern ever since the opening defeat against New Zealand in St Lucia, and though Fletcher rightly extolled the importance of building partnerships and bowling "in the areas discussed at the start of the match", the orthodoxy of his team's approach is sure to be challenged on Wednesday when Sri Lanka, arguably the most flamboyant of England's remaining opponents, arrive in town.

We must be very careful we don't put too much pressure on them

Duncan Fletcher defends England's top three

Sri Lanka, who marmalised England 5-0 last summer, haven't looked this impressive at a World Cup since their victorious campaign in 1996 - a tournament in which England, again, were the fall guys at Faisalabad. And now, spearheaded by the maverick slinger, Lasith Malinga, who grabbed four wickets in four balls in a searing spell against South Africa last week, Sri Lanka are even more potent opponents than ever before.

"Malinga is a threat, he is unusual to any other bowler," said Fletcher, referring to the vicious round-arm action that delivers the ball from in front of the umpire's chest. "Once you get out there and it hits you, it's completely different to the talk. When you're under pressure, the way you think is you always fall back on what you've done before. It's hard to ask guys to suddenly change to something they haven't really done consistently."

"As long as the top-order can build some partnerships, that's the crucial aspect," added Fletcher, in defence of his under-performing top three of Michael Vaughan, Ed Joyce and Ian Bell. "We must be very careful we don't put too much pressure on them. They are experienced, they've been around a bit, but they've got to build partnerships. Once it's set they can accelerate from that platform."

As true as it may be, the need to reiterate such basic disciplines was alarming. At a time when the big guns of this tournament are applying a glossy finish to months and years of groundwork, England - rather like the stadiums in which they are appearing - are frantically trying to disguise their skeletal framework.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

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