With depressing inevitability, England immediately subsided against India at the start of the Champions Trophy campaign. Though a spirited bowling effort restored some pride, they never, after collapsing so abjectly to 27-4, had any realistic chance of victory.
And so, it would appear any confidence gained from consecutive victories over Pakistan has been eroded. India won the toss, and sent England into bat; but skipper Andrew Flintoff admitted he would have batted regardless.
India’s young bowlers Irfan Pathan and Munaf Patel utilised the uncharacteristically seam-friendly conditions adroitly; yet that hardly excused the sheer inadequacy of England’s batting.
Ian Bell fell to a dubious lbw decision; Flintoff, somewhat irresponsibly, swiped to leg – he missed, and suddenly England were 11-2. For the umpteenth time, the side were unable to make any sort of use of the Powerplay overs, and were fighting in vain to cling onto hopes of a respectable score.
It would not have made a difference, but England were up against it before things had even begun. Over the summer, Ian Bell’s performances at number three in the one-day side were full of class and flexibility. Having finally solved their dilemma at three in the shorter format of the game, England bafflingly promoted him to open. The difference between batting at three at opening is a subtle one but it is a difference nonetheless; and are Andrew Strauss and Bell really the men to take advantage of the fielding restrictions?
The logical, common sense option would have been to promote Flintoff to open. If he bats at three, he will either come in towards the end of the Powerplay overs, so have less time to exploit them or, as against India, will come in when England have lost an early wicket.
Because the selectors want to refrain from having Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen after one another, Michael Yardy, playing his third ODI, was promoted to number four; he failed. Kevin Pietersen, England’s best one-day batsman, was therefore shifted to number five, where he rather predictably ended England’s final hope of salvation with a soft dismissal, trying to run the ball to third man.
As a result of the selectors’ confused logic, England’s top five is currently different in four ways to the line-up Duncan Fletcher are co doubtless envisage for the World Cup; namely, the absent Marcus Trescothick and Strauss opening, followed by Bell, Pietersen and then Flintoff.
But what are England going to do if Trescothick’s woes do not end, as I suspect. Well, rather than continue their re-jigging of the batting line-up, they should use Mal Loye, whose sweep of the quick bowlers could cause such havoc in the Powerplay overs, as an opening batsman. I am not against the idea of Flintoff being used to exploit the fielding restrictions in one-day cricket. But his current use at number three seems neither here nor there and is surely not the answer.
However, talk of the batting order is futile until some basic common sense is applied by England’s batsmen. As well as Pietersen, who was certainly guilty in this instance but will doubtless hide behind his unsatisfactory excuse of “that’s the way I play”, Chris Read’s attempt to hit Harbhajan Singh out of India rather encapsulated England’s brainless and aimless batting display.
Sadly, flawed logic was not applied merely to the batting order. Jon Lewis, so impressive with the new ball against Pakistan, was discreetly omitted, further proof that Fletcher and co do not really rate him.
Steve Harmison’s opening overs invariably challenge scorers and boundary fielders alike; his shambles of a new-ball spell today was no different. He did, at least, return to take the wicket of Sachin Tendulkar, but the fact remains that Harmison creates more nightmares for England supporters than for the opposition. James Anderson picked up two wickets on his international return; Jamie Dalrymple also took two when the end was nigh. But there has seldom been a more one-sided match which ended only in a four-wicket victory.
England, for all their positive words before the tournament began, must now beat Australia and then West Indies to qualify for the semi-finals. The selectors’ flawed logic is just one of many problems.