Uncertain England once again underprepared
A lot of water has passed over the pedalo since England last faced Test-class opposition. Twenty-six matches-worth in fact, in which time India and Pakistan have been bundled out of the World Cup, Australia have muscled their way to the top of the Super Eights table, Ireland and Bangladesh have struggled to live up to the euphoria of their qualification and West Indies have veered ever closer to an early exit.
So, what have England had to show for their efforts in that time? Well, since losing to New Zealand in St Lucia on March 16, they've creaked to embarrassingly timid wins against Canada and Ireland, thumped Kenya in a must-win match, and spent the rest of their time denying they've got a drinking culture in spite of lurid tabloid headlines to the contrary. On Wednesday, they take on Sri Lanka - the neutrals' favourites and arguably the most well-rounded team in the tournament - in a match that Michael Vaughan, England's captain, has described as "the start of our World Cup".
"We know that tomorrow is a real big game in the context of where we go in this tournament," said Vaughan. "We've proved over the months that if we do turn up and play, we can be a match for any side in the world, but we're going to have to raise our performance compared to what we have had already in this tournament."
"If we do turn up and play ..." Vaughan's choice of words seem faintly extraordinary - it's as if they imply that England might actually size up the contest and decide: "thanks, but no thanks." On Sunday, Duncan Fletcher spoke of the complacency that had seeped into his team's early games. After coasting thus far in the competition, England are set for a rude awakening tomorrow if this really is as far as their planning can carry them.
Sri Lanka are not merely a better drilled outfit than England; they are light years ahead in terms of preparation, personnel, form, flexibility and one-day know-how. They qualified from the toughest of the pools with three handsome wins out of three; on Sunday they slapped West Indies by 113 runs; and against South Africa last week they came within a stump's splinter of defending an indefensible total. England have no choice but to turn up and play, because there's no doubt that their opponents are ready and waiting.
Mahela Jayawardene, Sri Lanka's captain, is not generally a man renowned for psychological point-scoring, but having thrashed England 5-0 last summer in arguably the most pitifully one-sided one-day series of all time, it would have been rude not to reopen some old wounds. "Every game is a big game," he said, "so if they've waited this long to see that this is the time to start their World Cup, I don't know if that's the right way to go about it.
"We've been planning [this campaign] for about 12 months, and indirectly before then," he continued. "We knew we had to get the combinations right, we knew we had to get the right people, we knew exactly what conditions to expect, and we had to make sure that the 15 that we bring here are going to contribute in our different combinations. For that we've been planning for quite some time."
England, by implication, have not been planning for quite some time. Their shock CB Series victory provided a sticking-plaster of respectability, but the chaos that has swept their ranks since last summer can no longer be disguised. Take that ludicrous defeat at Headingley for instance, when Sri Lanka chased down 322 with a whopping 12.3 overs to spare. Of the 11 who slunk from the field that afternoon, only Ian Bell seems guaranteed to slink back tomorrow. Andrew Strauss, captain for that series, has been dropped since Australia (though a comeback for this match would appear to be on the cards), while the likes of Tim Bresnan, Kabir Ali and Geraint Jones have sunk without trace.
"That was a funny series with a lot of players missing," said Vaughan, although few people could recall much English laughter at the time. "I believe these are better bowlers, better players and stronger mentally than they were in that series. I believe we can raise our performance and the lads are focused to know that and I believe we can do it."
Unfortunately for Vaughan and for England, the bar has already been raised by the Sri Lankans themselves. "That tour kicked us off, but it was just a start," said Jayawardene. "Our youngsters learnt a lot, especially Lasith [Malinga] and Upul [Tharanga], but a lot of the guys have improved since England. We're now used to playing in different situations and different tournaments, and with different personnel. It was a brilliant tour for us, but we've come a long way from that."
Without putting too fine a point on it, all the signs point to the sort of drubbing that the previous worst-prepared England World Cup team, Mike Atherton's 1996 rabble, were subjected to by none other than the Sri Lankans at Faisalabad - when a certain Sanath Jayasuriya redefined the role of pinch-hitting with his 82 from 44 balls.
With two centuries in the tournament already and six in the last 12 months, Jayasuriya is currently enjoying the most prolific run of form of his career - and all this after reversing his decision to retire from Test cricket last summer. " He's been amazing," said Jayawardene. "We felt that when you come into a World Cup year, it's important to play all cricket. Test cricket might not directly contribute to one-day cricket, but when you're playing all the time it keeps you going."
England, who in effect gave up one-day cricket en masse to concentrate on the Ashes, might have found themselves nodding sagely at this assessment. But Sri Lanka's threat doesn't just come from their in-form batsmen. In Lasith Malinga, they possess the single most extraordinary and explosive weapon in the whole competition, the perfect counterpart to the enduring genius of Muttiah Muralitharan and the probing certainties of Chaminda Vaas.
"This is the best bowling attack that I've ever played with," said Jayawardene, "We have so many attacking options." England, meanwhile, are so ill-prepared that partnerships and percentage-play represent the limits of their strategic vision. Forget Ireland and Bangladesh. If they manage to get it together tomorrow, it really will be the shock of the tournament.
England (probable) 1 Michael Vaughan (capt), 2 Andrew Strauss, 3 Ian Bell, 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Andrew Flintoff, 6 Paul Collingwood, 7 Ravi Bopara, 8 Paul Nixon (wk), 9 Liam Plunkett, 10 Jimmy Anderson, 11 Monty Panesar.
Sri Lanka (probable) 1 Sanath Jayasuriya, 2 Upul Tharanga, 3 Mahela Jayawardene (capt), 4 Kumar Sangakkara (wk), 5 Chamara Silva, 6 Tillakaratne Dilshan, 7 Russel Arnold, 8 Chaminda Vaas, 9 Dilhara Fernando, 10 Muttiah Muralitharan, 11 Lasith Malinga.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo