Notoriously, England are at their most dangerous, particularly away from home, when universally written off. While their endeavours in winning consecutive one-dayers to qualify for the CB Series finals are patently nothing in comparison to victories at Bridgetown in ’94 or Melbourne in ’98, they do suggest England can attain World Cup respectability – elusive for 15 years – and progress to the semi-finals.
If England’s win against Australia was emphatic, their 14-run victory over New Zealand came about in spite of palpable limitations. England fought back very creditably against a competent New Zealand side in the latter stages of both innings; but, yet again, they were mediocre in the opening stages of these – and Australia would not allow England to escape.
After 13.3 overs, England reached a paltry 52-3; Mal Loye only averages 19 but his ability to score quick runs was missed. And, when they attempted to defend their 270-7, England were let down by their young bowlers Liam Plunkett and Sajid Mahmood to the extent that New Zealand reached 81-0 off 13 overs. Yet to win ultimately relatively comfortably against a one-day side as well-acquainted with the form of the game as New Zealand despite such faults certainly bodes well for the near future – when England will have Kevin Pietersen (who may even be called up for the finals), James Anderson and Jon Lewis at their disposal.
Where the victory over Australia was particularly satisfying for the triumph of youth – Ed Joyce, Plunkett and, to a lesser extent, Ian Bell and Sajid Mahmood – this was so gratifying because two of England’s experienced players, seemingly broken after a winter of near-relentless maulings, thrived.
Andrew Strauss’ 55 from number four suggested he is at ease batting lower down the order; remarkably, it was his top international score in 18 innings on tour. But, though this innings has almost certainly secured a World Cup berth, one would expect Kevin Pietersen to return for him come the World Cup.
Alternatively, and more adventurously, England could bring Pietersen in for Jamie Dalrymple. Pietersen’s idiosyncratic brand of dominating could be utilised at four, Strauss deployed at five, Andrew Flintoff at six and Collingwood, slightly harshly, at seven. It would be ridiculous for the selectors to think that Collingwood’s 106 meant he could not bat at seven; rather, they should realise that his bowling is currently more reliable than Dalrymple’s, and hence it would be futile to play Dalrymple, despite a few useful lower-order knocks, ahead of a genuine batsman: be it Strauss or, as I would prefer, Loye. (He would open; one of Michael Vaughan or Bell would move down to five.)
Collingwood’s century was a lesson in middle-order ODI batting. Towards the end of the innings, he was able to hit the boundary; but, in the main, his innings revolved around the use of his bottom-hand to steer the ball into gaps for ones and twos. Collingwood’s innings was wonderfully well paced and displayed precisely the sort of coherent thinking their one-day batting is too frequently bereft of. After a terrible start to the one-day tournament, his innings displayed his characteristic mental strength. His bowling, meanwhile, was savvy and subtle; it was telling that, yet again, he was trusted with the ball ahead of Dalrymple (ostensibly the fifth bowler) – and he delivered, bowling his 10 overs for just 46 while dismissing Styris and Vettori.
Andrew Flintoff, after a few games off the boil, returned to near his best; Plunkett displayed mental toughness and skill to take 3-60 after his first four overs had gone for 30, with him bowling a barrage of wides. Yet his stock has rightly risen after several encouraging bowling performances, while he is also an increasingly adept hitter at number nine.
So England, more by luck than judgment, have found themselves in the CB finals. The selectors will soon face tricky calls on both Dalrymple and the increasingly ridiculous Paul Nixon, neither of whom are in England’s best one-day 11. Michael Vaughan, out first ball, would not be either; but his captaincy is consistently so exemplary that he is still able to justify his selection – the upcoming games against Australia provide him with the ideal opportunity to return to form. Whatever their faults, England must be praised for displayed such mental resilience to, somehow, reach the finals – without their best batsman and second best one-day bowler.