Monday, 24 April 2006

Same old England

For England, the ODI series in India was yet another disaster in the side’s increasingly laughable attempt to become recognised challengers for next year’s World Cup. And, though injuries provided one much-needed excuse for the shambles, the most worrying aspect of the defeat is that, unlike India’s reserves, the majority of England’s stand-ins looked out of their depth.

Had the side been totally outclassed, we could all have shrugged our shoulders and come out with the usual excuses for the general ineptitude of the one-day team: lack of games and priorities laying so much with the test side. Yet defeats in the first two games were the result not so much of India’s quality, but the brainless batting of the England side. Despite dominating for the majority of both games, England were undone by their lack of nous and a coherent game plan towards the end of each innings.

The rash of slog-sweeps that saw the most facile of run chases turn into a defeat that was ultimately pretty comprehensive, in the first game, epitomised the slapdash showings on display all series. To further compound England’s misery, the chief practitioners of that particular collapse – Pietersen, Flintoff, Collingwood and Jones – are the quartet who will almost certainly be given the job of turning good starts into victories come the World Cup.

If there is anything England can gain from six largely unproductive matches, it is a burgeoning rubbish bag overflowing with players not good enough. This is particularly true of the batting – the facet of the game that truly let England down. An inexperienced brand of seam bowlers generally performed respectably enough.

It was a relief for England that Vikram Solanki finally had a truly abysmal series, rather than his usual showing of rash shots and a useful innings to grant a temporary reprieve. Despite claiming to have matured, Solanki continues to go around in circles and, at 30 and with 49 caps under his belt, Duncan Fletcher surely has the confirmation that the Worcestershire player is an infuriating underachiever.

Owais Shah, the man who performed so well on his test debut, mustered only 11 runs in three innings, yet may still be deserving of another chance, given the consistency of his county efforts and the inventiveness he revealed in the final test. Meanwhile Matt Prior, for reasons no one is quite able to fathom, appeared in all 11 of England’s winter ODIs – and as a specialist batsman in 10 of those. The lack of a half century is a damning indictment of Prior’s lack of quality, while Geraint Jones’ 100 runs in his final two games mean that his wicket-keeping role is secure. Indeed, Chris Read is now a more plausible rival to Jones than Prior.

However, Ian Bell’s performances in the last two games of the season were encouraging and suggest he may be worth another look at in the future. Which leaves Michael Vaughan, who did not participate in his second consecutive ODI tournament. Vaughan’s limited overs record is very poor; his injury record is even worse. It is surely time to ask the skipper to concentrate on test cricket – and, were he not the captain, he would probably have been ditched from the ODI set-up a long time ago.

England’s bowling may have been a mixed bag, but given the fact that Jones, Harmison, Giles and Flintoff (for two games) were all missing, it at least matched expectations.

Ian Blackwell’s tidy left-arm spin went for well under four an over, which would surely have cemented his place, had his batting not appeared so clueless. But Giles’ injury will give him an extended run in the side and, by the law of averages, he must eventually contribute with the bat.

The largely stand-in seam attack each hinted at a bright future, with the bizarre exception of Matthew Hoggard, who seems to lack the mental capacity to play one-day cricket. Yet it must not help being told virtually at the departure lounge that you are in fact wanted for the one-day series. However, ultimately it may come down to a lack of cool when getting smashed.

James Anderson, save for the odd expensive spell, is well on the way to restoring his old reputation, and should play in the World Cup. For all Duncan Fletcher’s obsession with a number nine who can score runs, logic dictates that the berths must be filled be the three best seamers (especially as Jones and Harmison could both score quick runs late on.)

Liam Plunkett showcased his bowling potential – though his 56 against Pakistan looks increasingly like a freak innings, given his woeful showing with a bat in his hand in this series. Still, Plunkett is firmly odds-on for a place in the World Cup squad. Kabir Ali was expensive but did pick up four wickets in one match. The Worcestershire player’s tendency to fall over in his delivery stride compromises his accuracy, and future chances may now only arrive after an injury crisis (so he will certainly play again!) And highly-rated Sajid Mahmood was much the same as Ali but may just have over-taken him in the pecking order.

Assuming Marcus Trescothick returns to the one-day team with better form than when he left it, England’s top seven includes six near-certainties – Trescothick, Strauss, Pietersen, Collingwood, Flintoff and Jones – and one definite question mark. Vaughan, Bell and Shah all have claims to the number three berth, as does Ed Joyce, while it is also possible that Alistair Cook will continue his sterling form and demand selection. England should discard Vaughan now, giving them a year to narrow down the four possibles and find two batsmen who can rely on.

Surrey’s Rikki Clarke, newly appointed vice-captain, has long been thought highly of, and could easily find himself in the final 15, albeit only as back-up to Collingwood and Flintoff. He is unlucky that the problem berth – number three – is a position he is alien to.

And the bowling options also look settled. Blackwell will probably pip Giles to the number eight berth, leaving Jones, Harmison and Anderson to complete a line-up of enormous potential. But who to play if a seamer is fit? Plunkett is favourite, though Chris Tremlett – absent through injury – has made an encouraging start, while Sajid Mahmood, if he finally becomes a regular for Lancashire in all forms of the game, could make a late charge for selection.

It is clear success in the one-day series was hardly Duncan Fletcher’s priority; how else to explain the continued selection of two keepers who were not worthy of selection as specialist batsmen?

Despite the disastrous result, England are closer to learning their squad for the World Cup, though it is true those not playing advanced their standing more than those who did. It may also be worth England’s while continuing to rest players in ODIs, at least until the end of the summer; it is the back-ups, rather than the probable starters, who must do most to convince.

Potential Squad for 2007? (starters in bold)

No comments: