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Tenacious England ready to scale twin peak

England celebrate wildly after Graeme Swann removed Ramnaresh Sarwan AFP

Leading into their do-or-die encounter in Chennai, there was a school of thought that England simply did not want to be in the World Cup anymore. Subconsciously, there was perhaps an element of truth at play, as a long, hard and emotional winter chugged towards its first realistic end-point. The plane was on the tarmac, fully fuelled-up and ready to go, and if anyone in the squad truly believed they were ready to duck the challenge, they could be back home in England right at this minute, like the blissfully indifferent Kevin Pietersen, freed from international duty for the first time since October.

If that seems a ridiculous notion in such a high-stakes tournament, then consider the logic - or lack thereof - that has governed England's campaign in recent days. When the team was on its knees, crying out for one last dose of heroism to spare them from the humiliation of a first-round exit, the management decreed that enough was already enough. Nothing more could be expected of such obvious go-to men such as James Anderson, whose mastery of swing and seam had delivered the Ashes on a plate in the first half of the winter, or Paul Collingwood, whose tank finally ran dry around the time of the Perth Test in December, and whose career has been gliding to a standstill on the hard shoulder ever since.

Instead England put their faith in fresh legs and clear minds, and turned the stage over to the likes of James Tredwell, Luke Wright, Chris Tremlett and Ravi Bopara - two of whom had not originally been selected in the World Cup squad, and two who had, but must have doubted if they'd ever be trusted to feature. And now, with Ajmal Shahzad's hamstring strain demanding a fourth change of personnel in the 15-man party, Andy Flower has followed a similar policy in opting for the inexperience of Jade Dernbach over older, wiser and, dare one say it, more cynical heads. If England string together three victories in their next three matches, they will have won the World Cup. Unless they get as excited about the coming days as Dernbach is sure to be, there will have been little point in pulling out all those stops in Chennai on Thursday night.

The gamble that they took against West Indies had the makings of a quiz question in years to come - ("who were the bowlers when England bombed out...") - but it was one that paid off handsomely in the crunch moments of the contest. Tremlett admittedly proved too hittable on a sit-up-and-beg surface, but his stooping catch at mid-off to dismiss Kemar Roach epitomised the difference in England's mindset when the game was on the line. Anderson in Ashes form would have gobbled that opportunity, no question, but what about the man who stopped and stared at Pietersen in Nagpur back in February, when Ryan ten Doeschate unleashed the skier that first exposed the frailties in a previously faultless fielding unit?

When the contest had been on a similar knife-edge against Bangladesh in Chittagong, the question had been put to the hollow-eyed Anderson: "How much do you really want this?" and the answer that echoed back was "not enough", as he served up a glut of leg-side wides to tear chunks out of the tail-end requirement. When Tredwell and the admirably combative Swann turned the West Indies match on its head, however, the euphoria at the fall of the final wicket answered all lingering doubts about England's hunger. They've done what they had to do to get out of a group that had been designed to guard against upsets, and having spent the past 48 hours sitting in Delhi wondering which flight they'd be boarding next, a trip to Colombo now looks the likeliest scenario.

It would be wrong to pin the blame for England's failings on fatigue and nothing else, not least because many other teams have had itineraries of similar ferocity. The Aussies, as England well know, haven't exactly had an easy time of it this winter, while India and South Africa spent the festive season hammering several bells out of one other in a memorable Test and ODI campaign, and none of those teams have made anything like as much of a meal of their qualification bids.

But in fairness to England, no-one else has had to process quite such a range of emotions to reach this point in time. For the first time in a long time, it's not ineptitude that has exposed their shortcomings, but disorientation. In short, England aren't used to being contenders - in any form of the game, let alone all three at once - and they are still working out what it takes to keep their standards topped up.

When the legendary Australian side of the 2000s was faced with the regular challenge of the Ashes and the World Cup in the same winter, they overcame the problem by winning absolutely everything in sight - except, lest it be forgotten, the CB Series in 2006-07, when England punctuated a winter of whitewashes and pedalos with the most third-rate bauble on offer. It was and remains an inexplicable heist from a team in free-fall whose captain had turned to the bottle, but it provided proof, however fleeting, that even the all-time greats end up lowering their standards once in a while - let alone teams such as this current England side who have yet to master the basics of consistency.

England got everything spot-on in the Ashes, but then, in their attempt to traverse between the two biggest peaks in their game, they lost their footing on the downward slope and went tumbling. The standards they set for themselves in that series, both on the field and in their David Saker-honed bowling strategies, were nowhere to be seen during a slack-witted one-day campaign in Australia, and they could not be rescued in time for the start of the World Cup. In hindsight, it is understandable how a team that had been performing at fever pitch for three months found it hard to replicate the same intensity against the likes of Netherlands, Ireland and Bangladesh, even if the full extent of their struggles still beggar belief.

England have been in this position before, itinerary-wise, and they do not intend going through it all again. By 2015, the Ashes and the World Cup will have been split into separate winters, and for the first time since 1992 - when, coincidentally, Graham Gooch's men performed as well as any side can without claiming the spoils - the game's most prestigious one-day trophy will not be contested on the back of a bone-jarring five-Test series against a Southern Hemisphere giant.

Three jet-lagged days at home and a ridiculous photo-call against the backdrop of Heathrow's perimeter fence was all the chance that Andrew Strauss and his team were given to process the magnitude of their triumph in Australia. But give it two more weeks, and they could have the chance for the homecoming to end all homecomings. After the tenacity they've shown just to stay alive, who would dare to discount them?