With preparation for the end-of-season Champions Trophy in mind, the ECB shifted the NatWest Challenge (the brief, bilateral complement to the triangular NatWest Series) from its midsummer home into early September. England's opponents were India, potentially one of the strongest limitedovers outfits in world cricket, providing both meaningful practice and additional revenue: these three games were sell-outs, as India's one-day internationals in England generally are.
Both teams had plenty at stake. England needed a fillip after failing to qualify for the final of the NatWest Series in early July, and their recent performances in the shorter game were at odds with their triumphant march through the Test summer. India too were keen to hit some sort of form before their Champions Trophy games, when they had a chance to gain revenge on Pakistan, who in recent weeks had got the better of them in both Colombo and Amstelveen. However, it emerged during this three-game challenge that throughout their short England tour the Indians would have to cope without Sachin Tendulkar, who was taking longer than expected to recover from tennis elbow.
The cricket was of a decent standard and, for England especially, there were several positives. Alex Wharf, plucked from the more obscure reaches of the county game, marked his international debut by removing three worldclass batsmen, Steve Harmison grabbed a one-day best four for 22 and was player of the series, while Andrew Flintoff continued to strike terror into bowlers of all kinds. He was instrumental in England securing the series with a game to go and, when he was elsewhere for the third game, England promptly lost, despite Michael Vaughan ending a dire run with the bat that had brought him just 51 in seven one-day innings. And Darren Gough, believed by some to have passed his sell-by date, instead passed 200 oneday wickets for England.
Mohammad Kaif led the Indian batting and might perhaps have reached fifty in every game had his captain, Sourav Ganguly, not run him out in the third. Harbhajan Singh proved the value of quality spin, especially in the second game, at The Oval. But the Indians finished the short series with more questions asked than answered. Top of the list was the perennial "Who's going to be the wicket-keeper?" Rahul Dravid was in the games they lost, while the 19-year-old Dinesh Karthik made his debut in the successful third. But no one seemed sure this was the right answer.
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