August 2006

Who are England's off-roaders?

Matthew Fleming
Matthew Fleming on Sri Lanka's demolition of England in the one-day series

Happy days: Fleming with Graham Thorpe and Adam Hollioake at Sharjah © Getty Images

My reaction to Sri Lanka's demolition of England in the recent one-day series was one of amazement and disappointment. Disappointment that England lost and amazement at the ineptitude they displayed in the process. I was full of "When I played for England ..." and even started selecting my team of county stalwarts who I was confident would beat the current England team: Darren Maddy, Dougie Brown, Ben Smith, Matt Walker etc. Then, during a particularly silly rant in the kitchen, my wife reminded me of a very pertinent story involving the late Fred Trueman.

In 1998, during my brief international career, I was playing against West Indies in Barbados. My family had loyally followed me and 16 of them were sitting proudly in the Garfield Sobers stand watching "our hero" being deposited to parts of the Kensington Oval that had not previously seen cricket balls. Fred was commentating on Test Match Special, broadcast via a local station, and his distinctive Yorkshire opinions were floating through the stand. "If you were a West Indian batsman you would struggle to sleep at night wouldn't you Aggers?" "Why's that Fred?" chirped the aforementioned Aggers, "Nerves?" "Ay lad, nerves that you'd oversleep and miss the chance of batting against Fleming." Fred then went off into a paroxysm of "In my days ..." as my immediate family, rather disloyally, roared with laughter.

How quickly we old pros forget our inadequacies! So having taken off my rosetinted spectacles I reflected again on the series. I do not think I am entitled to pass judgement on a team that clearly tried their socks off but hope my experience entitles me to ask the following questions:

I remain suspicious that the intense focus on last summer's Ashes - and the subsequent celebrations - meant Duncan Fletcher and his team have not always put the necessary emphasis on one-day cricket. Given the already growing interest in this winter's Ashes - and the difficulty of reversing thoughts that might even be subconscious - will Duncan Fletcher be able to re-establish the necessary concentration and focus?

A great deal has been made of England's injury problems, which could easily be just as extensive during the World Cup. But what was the thinking behind this team: was it England's best under the circumstances or part of a learning process aimed to culminate next year?

If it was the former, how could England's best side play such ineffective, dumb cricket? What role did the coaching staff play in developing the plans and helping the players deliver? If it was the latter, is it the right strategy? Do the selectors and management really feel they gave their captain the best chance of success by fielding that most inexperienced of squads?

I was part of the split-team experiment. When we were winning in Sharjah we were considered "one-day specialists" who won games with spirit and nous. When we were being stuffed by a very strong South Africa we were described as "bits-and-pieces" cricketers who were not good enough. If the best Test cricketers are the equivalent of Formula 1 cars I was the original quad-bike. Good one-day teams need cricketers who can go "off-road"; bowlers who can think like a batsman and batsmen who can think like bowlers and have the spirit to lift a team. Have England identified their offroaders?

Adam Hollioake was my captain and I have never played under a better one. The selectors in 1999 should shoulder a colossal amount of blame for England's woeful showing in that World Cup as they lost their nerve and replaced Adam at a crucial stage of the buildup. A good one-day leader could be worth his place for this attribute alone. Have England identified their best leader?

While I am not rushing out to have a bet on England to win next year's World Cup I am encouraged that we might have had our bad patch at the right time. We have the talent - but ultimately that talent is worthless unless Duncan and his team can identify those capable of making the most of it under pressure.

Matthew Fleming was part of the last England team to win a significant overseas ODI series, at Sharjah in 1997-98