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News Analysis

England's no-win trip north

Scotland will aim to take advantage of England's vulnerability in a fixture that does little to aid the long-term planning of Peter Moores and Alastair Cook

Alastair Cook, David Saker, Chris Jordan and Peter Moores check out Mannofield Park, Scotland v England, only ODI, Aberdeen, May 8, 2014

An ODI in Aberdeen in May could present difficulties for Alastair Cook and Peter Moores  •  Getty Images

Win and it is only to be expected; lose and it is a humiliation. Peter Moores' second stint as England coach begins with as close to a no-win fixture as is possible.
England should prove too strong for Scotland. Despite recent setbacks, England are No. 4 in the ODI rankings and reached the final of the last global ODI tournament. Their players enjoy every advantage of modern professionalism and several of them have played more than 100 ODIs. Some of Scotland's players have to fit cricket in around their day jobs.
But this game has many of the ingredients for an upset. Scotland, highly motivated and resurgent having recently qualified for the World Cup, have nothing to lose and know that, after a chastening winter, England cannot be high on confidence. It would be stretching things a bit far to say they smell blood, but they certainly sense vulnerability. Netherlands' victory over England has shown what is possible
England, meanwhile, have not played any white ball cricket this season. They have never played an ODI so far north - Kyle Coetzer, Scotland's captain, proudly described it as the most northerly ODI venue in the world - and, in doing so in early May in a match starting at 10.30am and incorporating two new balls, know that batting could be something of a lottery at times. Poor weather could also intervene - it would be a surprise if it didn't - increasing the prospect of a shortened run chase, bowlers struggling to grip slippery balls and Duckworth-Lewis inspired frustration.
It would be wrong to decry the pitch, though. New Zealand scored 400 here in an ODI in 2008 and seven men have registered ODI centuries on the ground. But the boundary is small, the outfield on Thursday surprisingly wet and the sell-out crowd likely to be heavily partisan. It all faintly evokes memories of first-class sides being embarrassed at the home of minor county teams in the Gillette Cup.
One thing England should not be is complacent. Indeed, after the shock of the Netherlands defeat - a defeat that might well have cost Ashley Giles his job - and the thrashings in Australia, it remains to be seen if England's scars have healed. It was a lack of confidence, not a surfeit of it, which was their main weakness in Bangladesh.
There is a sense that Moores, at the start of this new era for England, is keen to help the team rediscover the simple pride and joy of representing their country and playing a game they love for a living. As Alastair Cook admitted, there were times in Australia, in particular, when they forgot that.
"You have to remember how lucky we are to wear the shirt and play for your country," Cook said. "Sometimes after a long period away, you forget that. Last winter is probably a reminder of that. When you lose games of cricket it becomes very hard.
"Now we've all had bit of time away from the game, it's been a good time to reflect and realise how special it is to be playing for England. We have to remember that at all times. Chatting to a few of the guys who are no longer playing, they say it's the best days of your life even in tough times."
Furthermore, with 21 ODIs to play until the World Cup starts, places are at stake in both sides. This England team has only been assembled for this game so performances here will influence selection for the limited-overs series against Sri Lanka, which will be named on Tuesday.
Most urgently, England need to find some reliable 'death' bowlers - not a strong area in county cricket at present - and decide on their top-order batting tactics.
Harry Gurney, a left-arm bowler of sharp if not express pace, might be one answer. He has developed a good record in domestic white-ball cricket and could partner James Anderson or Stuart Broad in Powerplays and at the end of an innings. Ravi Bopara, who Alastair Cook revealingly named as one of two colleagues (Broad was the other) he consulted before deciding to continue as captain, is another underutilised 'death' option. Chris Jordan, who has looked the most dangerous new-ball bowler in England this season, rarely does the job for Sussex and struggled when pressed into service in the role in the Caribbean.
There is a sense that England would like to take a more aggressive approach to the first 15 overs of their innings. The argument for such a tactic is that, on the batsmen-friendly tracks anticipated for most of the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, England's traditional steady approach will not generate the huge totals that may be needed to prevail.
But Aberdeen in May is not the place to experiment with aggressive top-order batting. It may well be that the games played against Sri Lanka offer little more help, either. England continue to be hindered by their scheduling.
Besides, Cook believes that the best players have the ability to adapt. So those players who are suited to seeing England through the new ball in Aberdeen should, if Cook is to be believed, also prove the men to get them off to a flyer in Perth and Brisbane.
"One of skills you need as an international cricketer is the ability to play in different conditions," Cook said. "You're challenged wherever you play in the world. The best players adapt and find a way of delivering results. The wicket here looks good, but it won't be an absolute belter, so going hard would be foolish."
But preparing for a World Cup in Australia and New Zealand by playing in Aberdeen in May is like preparing for a sprint by going ice-skating.
All of which begs the question: why is this game taking place? The politically correct answer is that the ECB and ICC want to provide some encouragement to an Associate neighbour. But the fact that England have played only two of their previous 616 ODIs against Scotland, does not suggest that encouragement is especially effusive.
If the ECB really wanted to support Associate cricket, it would lobby the ICC to push for cricket to be accepted as an Olympic sport. Until it does, matches like this are little more than a perfunctory sop.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo