Rediff Logo Cricket
May 7, 1999


send this report to a friend

Action stations

Steven Lynch

Only a week to go, and people in England are beginning to get the message that the Big One is here. Most are agreed that this is a crucial time for cricket in England, where football is king. And football, which used to start in September and end in April, now seeps into May, if not June, and starts up again early in August. It is vital that this look-in for cricket extends awareness and interest in the game.

 England manager David Graveney helps out at the nets
Pic: Laurence Griffith / Allsport
The fly in the ointment is that, for any surge of interest to be maintained here, the England team needs to do well. Their build-up has been patchy, to say the least. The trip to Sharjah was a minor disaster: three defeats when it mattered, one win when it didn't.

England handicapped themselves in Sharjah in two ways. First, there was Alec Stewart's continued inability to win the toss. He called wrong in all five Tests in Australia, and in four of 11 one-day internationals there, including both finals - so don't bother asking him for any gambling tips.

Stewart's bad luck continued in the Coca-Cola Cup (nought out of three when it mattered). England's management reckoned that batting first in Sharjah, in daylight, was worth 20-30 runs. Batting under lights, with the ball starting to swing more, was more of a problem. And England kept getting stuck with it.

The rest of England's desert distress was also self-induced - or,rather, dictated by the need to declare their World Cup 15 by March 31, before the Coca-Cola tournament. It meant that England travelled to dusty Sharjah with a team designed for damp, green early-season pitches at home.

Realistically they couldn't have done much else, but it did mean that Ian Austin was predictably innocuous, and Angus Fraser struggled too.Whether the 'team bonding' which took place outweighed the morale-damaging defeats remains to be seen. My guess is that it did: playing at all, even in stifling heat, must be better than mooching around England waiting for the latest April shower to stop!

More worrying for England has been the form of some of their selected players. Skipper Stewart is the main concern. His triple burden as captain, keeper and opening bat proved too much for him in the Tests in Australia, and it looks as if it's asking too much to expect him to do it in one-dayers as well. His top score in his last 15 one-day internationals is 39, and in a 120-match career his overall average is a modest 30.40. England's other main batsmen - Thorpe, Hick, Fairbrother and Knight - are all within touching distance of 40.

Knight had one good innings in Sharjah, but his form on returning to England has been patchy, and Stewart's has been worse. Hick managed an 89 for Worcestershire before reporting for England duty, and Thorpe stroked a century for Surrey as they beat Northamptonshire. Fairbrother has started quietly - he's probably keeping his famous dodgy hamstring well wrapped up - and Nasser Hussain, the late replacement for the injured Mike Atherton, has had a quiet time of it too. It's an important season for Hussain, who has taken over as captain of Essex, who finished bottom of the County Championship for only the second time in their history last year.

 Andy Flintoff, England's boy wonder, gets an impromptu shower from the ground staff
Pic: Clive Mason / Allsport
But two men have been in prime batting form. Big Andy Flintoff, by seven years the youngest man in England's World Cup squad, showed he was ready for action with an amazing 143 in 66 balls for Lancashire in their 45-over match against Essex. But the real in-form allrounder has been Chris Lewis, who followed twin centuries for county champions Leicestershire with his maiden one-day hundred.

 Chris Lewis, the man nobody wants
Pic: Ben Radford / Allsport
Just one thing: Lewis isn't in the World Cup squad. Stupidly, he wasn't even in the preliminary list of 38 players from whom the squad was chosen, because of disciplinary problems in the past. But with Lewis - a handy bowler in English conditions and still a fine fielder - in prime form, it would be terribly convenient if Austin's leg trouble, which has restricted him to four one-day matches in the last six months, were to force him to drop out. Lewis would be the obvious replacement. Stewart, a team-mate during Lewis's time with Surrey, is said to be a fan: the other selectors are not so sure.

Overall the bowling is less of a worry than the batting. However, if the blazing weather which bathed the early-May bank-holiday weekend in glorious sunshine continues, then the seamers-paradise pitches which everybody has been predicting might turn out to be hard and blameless,and ready for the flat-track bullies (as Graeme Hick was harshly tagged by New Zealander John Bracewell) and the pinch hitters.

 England's 'enforcer', Gough, at practise under the eye of manager Graveney
Pic: Laurence Griffith / Allsport
If the ball does move about, then the bowlers, led by Darren Gough (England's 'enforcer') and left-armer Alan Mullally, will make early inroads. Then Angus Fraser will apply the brake, helped by Austin, the bustling bruiser. Flintoff has that Bothamesque knack for taking wickets, although he won't often get through his full ten overs without suffering an expensive over or two.

 England's key batsman, in a rare moment of repose
Pic: Laurence Griffith / Allsport
The main offspinner will be Robert Croft. The Welshman lost out in Sharjah, where he was eventually dropped, but is still likely to play a big part at home. In one-day games he pushes the ball through - 'a bit quicker, and a bit straighter'. On turning pitches Hick, who took five wickets against Pakistan A in one of the warm-up matches for Sharjah, will lend an arm.

With Graham Thorpe abandoning bowling after his back trouble, England do lack a bowler who can fiddle a few cheap overs. Australia have several of these, such as Darren Lehmann or Ricky Ponting or Mark Waugh, and India have handy performers like Ajay Jadeja, who took three wickets in one over and scuppered England's chances in one of the Sharjah matches.

So Adam Hollioake, golden-boy captain turned 12th man, might sneak into the first-choice XI as insurance.

So how will England do? They should qualify for the second phase of Super Six matches - but might struggle to get any further. South Africa and Australia look very strong, and I have a sneaking feeling for New Zealand, with all their dobbly medium-pacers, and India, whose experienced bowling attack looks to be well-suited to English conditions.

But back to reality. For all the recent sunshine you can't trust the English weather. The likelihood is that it won't stay fine throughout May. The worst-case scenario has those maths-meisters Duckworth andLewis indulging their dreaded secret formula for rain-affected matches in game after game, mystifying everyone without an honours degree. Anything more guaranteed to switch off the public would be hard to imagine.

Steven Lynch is managing editor of WisdenCricket Monthly, and a regular contributor to Cricket Unlimited.

 Name: Email:
 Post a message:

Tell us what you think of this column