England aim to avoid a show-stopper
This tournament blows as hot and cold as a schizophrenic lover. One minute it's the worst show on earth, devalued by too many mismatches and too many minnows; the next, one of those minnows has grown teeth and started nibbling the ankles of the big boys, and the excitement is back on. On Wednesday Bangladesh take on England - in a non-event that is suddenly a show-stopper.
Or rather, it will be a show-stopper if Bangladesh do unto England what they have done unto India and South Africa so far in the World Cup, and send them spiralling to their fourth defeat of the Super Eights. After faffing ineffectually so far in the competition, England now need five wins in a row if they are to pull off another CB Series-style resurrection. Once upon a time, a victory in this match would have been taken as read. Not anymore.
After their euphoric performance in this tournament to date, Bangladesh can no longer be viewed through the same jaundiced eye that they once were. They remain young and inexperienced and prone to thumping defeats if their bubble of exuberance can be pricked before they've had time to get stuck into a match. But given half a sniff of victory, they have versatility and level-headedness in their batting, and a spin-orientated bowling attack that loves nothing better than to close ponderous teams down in the middle overs of a chase.
Few teams are as ponderous as England on a bad day. Their victories over the genuine minnows, Canada and Ireland, were desperately unconvincing, and even on their better days, against Sri Lanka and (for a time) Australia, they were unable to translate a winning position into outright victory.
"We have to go out and beat Bangladesh, that's the first step, and then we'll look at it from there," England's coach, Duncan Fletcher, said as he sized up the permutations of his team's qualification. "It's probably going to go down to a [run-rate] calculation, but you don't want to go into that in great depth."
There are several subjects that Fletcher might not want to go into in great depth at present, not least the form of his two most recent captains. Michael Vaughan has totalled 83 runs in six innings so far and Andrew Flintoff has starred with the ball as ever but has mustered just 49 runs in a campaign that is still most notable for his nautical activities.
Vaughan's slump, though problematic, is the lesser issue of the two, because even at his best, he is never going to be a destructive hitter to rival the on-song Flintoff. Without Freddie firing, however, England are designed to ebb away from every situation in which a couple of quick wickets come tumbling, as they demonstrated so expertly when collapsing from 164 for 2 against the Aussies.
"I wouldn't say Andrew feels at the top of his game," Fletcher said, "which is why he's working a little bit extra on it. He feels there are certain areas that he has to work on in these conditions. Against the spinners it's pretty hard with these big outfields because you can't just keep clearing the boundary and ones and twos become important and it's an area he feels he has to work on."
It's an area that justifiably gives Bangladesh real cause for optimism in the run-up to this fixture. After watching Flintoff flounder against Brad Hogg, the trio of Abdur Razzak, Mohammad Rafique and Saqibul Hasan - left-armers one and all, but each so subtly different - will be confident they can restrict England to a chaseable total. As Kevin Pietersen showed with the tempo of his century against Australia, all it takes is uncertainty at one end of the pitch to quell England's attacking instincts at the other.
Bangladesh's own batsmen hardly suffer from the same anxieties. Their youthful batsmen have been revelling in the carefree attitude that has been fostered around their squad. From the moment Tamim Iqbal led that frenzied assault on India's seamers in the opening match, to Mohammad Ashraful's outrageous paddle-sweeping against South Africa, the talent and ebullience has been on full display. If any of their hard-hitters can get stuck into men such as Sajid Mahmood or Jimmy Anderson, England could have a fight on their hands.
"The English team has some good players but they are not playing well at the World Cup, so it will not be impossible to beat them," Bangladesh's captain, Habibul Bashar, said. "The South Africa win has increased the confidence and morale in the team. Now we need to win three more matches to come into contention for a semi-final. The boys know it's hard work, but they are ready for it."
And, in an indication of Bangladesh's bullishness, Bashar felt confident enough to strike back at those who decry the absence of India and Pakistan. "They lost two out of their three first-round matches," he wrote in his newspaper column of the Bangladesh daily, Prothom Alo. "If this attitude persists, one should organise a 'Top Ranking Cup' instead of the World Cup, where the teams will play according to their rankings.
"The World Cup is not the property of one or two teams. It belongs to everyone and the best team will win the cup. Instead of spoiling the show, Bangladesh have made the World Cup more interesting. There are now plenty of teams fighting for the semi-finals." Some, like England, will have to fight harder than others.
England (probable) 1 Ian Bell, 2 Michael Vaughan (capt), 3 Andrew Strauss, 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Paul Collingwood, 6 Andrew Flintoff, 7 Ravi Bopara, 8 Paul Nixon (wk), 9 Sajid Mahmood, 10 Monty Panesar, 11 James Anderson.
Bangladesh (probable) 1 Javed Omar, 2 Tamim Iqbal, 3 Saqibul Hasan, 4 Habibul Bashar (capt), 5 Aftab Ahmed, 6 Mohammad Ashraful, 7 Mushfiqur Rahim (wk), 8 Mohammad Rafique, 9 Mashrafe Mortaza, 10 Abdul Razzak, 11 Syed Rasel.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo