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March 30, 1999


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Ever the bridesmaid...

Steven Lynch

England have reached the World Cup final three times. But they've never won it. England play more domestic one-day cricket than any other country, so why haven't they done better?

There's an element of luck, of course. England were arguably the best side in both the 1987 and 1992 World Cups, but they lost out to inspired opposition on the day, in both finals. But one reason for their continued failure has been that they have often been behind the times as far as tactics go.

 Geoff Boycott
Take 1979, when England reached the final for the first time, and faced up to the holders, West Indies. One-day international cricket was still in its infancy, but the other teams had worked out that you probably needed one stubborn opener like Geoff Boycott or Mike Brearley, in case you lost early wickets and needed to consolidate. But England picked both, and in response to the West Indies' imposing total of 286 for 9, the pair of them pottered about for ages. They put on 129 for England's first wicket, but used up 38 of the 60 overs in doing so.

This meant that the asking rate for the later batsmen was astronomical, and Joel Garner (5 for 38) was lying in wait. There was even a mischievous suggestion that Clive Lloyd, normally the safest of fielders, dropped Boycott (who took 17 overs to reach double figures) on purpose to keep him at the crease!

The safety-first approach was doubly daft because England had gone into the final with an extra batsman, Wayne Larkins. To do this, they had sacrificed a proper fifth bowler, and hoped to fiddle 12 overs from a combination of Larkins and Gooch - and Boycott, who had had some success earlier in the tournament, bowling little outswingers with his cap turned back to front. It was optimistic to expect it to work in the final - and it didn't. Viv Richards and Collis King enjoyed themselves rather more than England's part-time bowlers, whose 12 overs cost a combined total of 86 runs.

So that's why England lost in 1979. In 1983 (the last time till now that the World Cup has been played in England) they lost to an inspired Indian team in the semi-final. This was unexpected - nearly as unexpected as India's subsequent victory in the final!

 David Gower
When the World Cup moved to India and Pakistan in 1987, England should have had a powerful team. But they travelled without two superstars. Ian Botham and David Gower were both unavailable for that winter's tours, because they wanted to spend more time at home. I can't remember anyone trying very hard to persuade them to change their minds, which seems incredible now.

 Mike Gatting
So instead of Botham and Gower, England fielded the likes of Bill Athey and Phil DeFreitas. And the tail was too long: wicketkeeper Paul Downton batted No. 6 in the final (when, it should be said, Athey top-scored for England with 58). When Mike Gatting tried that fateful, fatal reverse-sweep at Allan Border's first ball, he can't have been over-confident when he saw Downton padding up. An extra batsman would have come in useful this time: England lost by seven runs.

There was still no Gower in 1992, for the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, but at least Botham was back. And for once, England were ahead of the thinking of the time, by employing Beefy as a pinch-hitting opener, to take advantage of the new rule which permitted only two fielders outside the 30-yard circles in the first 15 overs. They started off very confidently, beating India, West Indies (easily), Australia (even more easily) and Sri Lanka (by 106 runs). In the middle, there was a strange match at Adelaide, where England bowled out Pakistan on a helpful pitch for 74. And then it rained, and Pakistan escaped with a no-result. Had they lost, they wouldn't have made the semi-finals.

With their own qualification assured, England began to go off the boil. They narrowly defeated South Africa, lost to New Zealand, and then went down to Zimbabwe, who were not at the time a Test-playing country. And in the semi-final, they might have lost to South Africa if rain hadn't intervened. So it was no great surprise that Pakistan buried memories of the earlier Adelaide match in the final.

 Ian Botham
Still, 1992 was probably England's best chance of a win. In that final they took two early wickets, then Graham Gooch dropped a difficult swirler from his opposing captain Imran Khan, who went on to top-score with a vital 72. Then, when England batted, hitter Botham had no chance to pinch: he was given out caught behind for a duck. To this day, he swears he didn't hit it. And to this day he's not keen on Aamir Sohail who, remembering Beefy's lame joke about Pakistan being a good place to send your mother-in-law, suggested that Botham's mother-in-law couldn't have done much worse.

England had learned one lesson from 1987: they had some handy allrounders to bolster the tail, and only Richard Illingworth at No. 11 was a rabbit. But the pressure, under lights, in front of 87,182 people, was too much, and England fell short again, by 22 runs. It was the fifth time out of five that the side batting first had won.

And so to 1996. This time, England gave the impression of having no tactics at all. Ray Illingworth was the 'supremo' - chairman of selectors, and manager too. His tactical knowhow was what won him the job in the first place - but it was rooted in the 1960s, when his Yorkshire side won everything in sight, and no-one took much notice of one-day cricket. So Illy grappled with the concepts of pinch-hitters, and sweepers in the field, and dobbly medium-pacers opening the bowling .. and he grappled with the subcontinent, too. He never went there as a player, after all.

 Sanath Jayasuriya
In 1996, England lost all three group matches against Test-playing opposition, but qualified thanks to victories over minnows Holland and the United Arab Emirates. And then they were blown away in the quarter-final by Sri Lanka - particularly by Sanath Jayasuriya's amazing 82 from only 44 balls. It was the first time England had failed to reach the semi-finals, and marked their feeblest performance in any World Cup.

Now it's 1999, and the one thing England won't be guilty of this time is tactical naivety on the massive 1996 scale, or even the rather less stellar 1979 one. There's now a huge backroom presence ('Team England') in place, with press officers, specialist batting and bowling coaches, and administrators galore. But even with all that, England floundered about recently in Australia, looking for their best one-day side but finishing with more questions than answers. And their final competition before the World Cup is not ideal either. English pitches in May are likely to be green-tinged, offering quite a bit of movement. So England are warming up in Sharjah, with its arid climate and batsman-friendly pitches. Who'd be a selector?

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

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