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CW World Cup Countdown. Day 9 - England
05 Mar 2007
By: Neil Pickup


As part of a series of articles leading up to the World Cup, Cricket Web presents a daily review on the background, players and prospects a specific competing team, starting with the minnows and building up to the favourites. Today we feature England.

Introduction

Host of more World Cups than any other nation, inventors of the game and pioneers of the two limited-over forms of the game, England have a cricketing foundation second to none. Unfortunately for their long-suffering fans, England have been second in most other things too.

Leadup to the Tournament

A home whitewash at the hands of a marauding Sri Lanka, culminating as the tourists chased 327 at Headingley with more than ten overs to spare, set the tone for another catalogue of English ODI under-achievement. Elements and late-season tracks reminiscent of April allowed a shared series against Pakistan, before the ICC Champions Trophy in India.

Seemingly treating the series as little more than a low-key preparation for the upcoming Ashes Tour of Australia, England took from the tournament exactly what their perfomances deserved: nothing that mattered. A consolation win over the eventual finalists, the West Indies, when neither side's fate was in the balance, paled against convincing defeats against India and Australia.

The Commonwealth Bank Series in Australia, on the back of the first Ashes whitewash since 1921, continued in a similar vein. Andrew Flintoff single-handedly created a victory over New Zealand at Hobart, but for the majority of the time, the Kiwis and the hosts were supreme with something to spare. Day-night fixtures barely required their floodlights. With one round of group matches remaining in the series, England were 129/1 to gain its oversize silverware.

Then something remarkable happened. Ed Joyce, finding his feet at the top of the order, hit the first ODI century by an Englishman since Marcus Trescothick's ton at the Headingley run-feast. Liam Plunkett sent his first ball into the base of Adam Gilchrist's stumps. Sajid Mahmood's slower ball claimed a list of victims longer than his stock delivery. England triumphed over their oldest rivals and kept their mathematical hopes alive.

The Australians played their own part in aiding the English revival, Brad Hodge's 99* steering the hosts past New Zealand in the penultimate group game and setting up what would effectively be a semi-final between the two visitors. Jacob Oram dropped Paul Collingwood and the Durham batsman emerged from a deep batting rut to make a hundred, but Stephen Fleming's response kept the Kiwis on top of their chase... until he stuttered, and his team did likewise. England were in the final; now they just had three more matches against the Australians to worry about.

Most people thought the match-up would be over before the third game was needed. They were right. Australia were in complete control as the opening game reached the 30-over mark, before they collapsed. The last nine wickets fell for 73 runs, and the last five for just six, as they were bowled out with more than an over remaining. It didn't look like it mattered, however, as England slid to 15 for 3 early in their reply... until Paul Collingwood got involved again. Another century, with trenchant support from Ian Bell, tipped the scales before a brace of boundaries off Shane Watson overbalanced them. Scarcely believably, it was 1-0 England.

Two days later, England repeated the dose. Another critical contribution from Collingwood, this time 'only' 70, set a total that seemed no more than par - until Liam Plunkett tore the middle out of the Australian batting. Rainstorms over Sydney, Duckworth and Lewis all played their part, but once the head had been shorn from the home body, the legs were never enough to reach their target. It was two-nil, England were in the midst of their longest winning run in ODIs since the summer of 1997, and the third match was superfluous - but not in the way we had expected.

Players to Watch

Andrew Flintoff

Big-hitting batsman, first change bowler. Middle-order centrepiece, wicket-taking go-to man. Safe hands in the slips, giant arm from the boundary. Talisman, captain. England's folk hero Flintoff has done his utmost to be all things to all England selectors since the triumphant summer of 2005, with admittedly mixed success. At his uninhibited finest, he remains capable of shredding opposition bowling attacks and neutering batting orders worldwide.

Yet the England management remain determined that he is the man to weigh down with the responsibilty of covering Michael Vaughan's captaincy in the Yorkshireman's absence, no matter how burdened his performances and press conferences remain. World Cup 2007 is likely to hold no half-measures for Flintoff - either unfettered and instinctive success, or leaden failure. England's entire campaign will depend on him.

Kevin Pietersen

Notwithstanding England's CB Series glory in the South African-born batsman's absence, the Hampshire star was England's brighest spot before the final turnaround. An inimitable ability to hit some of the most unorthodox yet powerful strokes in the world game, and the strength to clear the boundary almost at will, make Pietersen the core of England's middle order.

Whether Pietersen is able to take control of matches as English fans hope will depend on the foundations that England's top order are able to lay for him. It is a waste of his phenomenal talents to devote them to rebuilding tasks. The final overs are his kingdom, and it is up to his teammates to allow his reign.

Paul Collingwood

Bits-and-pieces no longer following one of the finest innings by an English batsman in ODI cricket, Collingwood's development as an International cricketer, which began in England's last tri-series visit down under with a century against Sri Lanka, has reached maturity.

A genuine middle order finisher, Collingwood also offers intelligent medium pace bowling allied to one of the most athletic, reliable and accurate pairs of hands in world cricket. It's not down to chance that England's winter revival coincided almost exactly with the Durham man's return to form, and if the ginger all-rounder can maintain his performance in the Caribbean, his side will have every chance of success.

Strengths

England's three strongest links bat at four, five and six in their order. Their engine room of power, nous and experience in Pietersen, Collingwood and Flintoff also gives them balance in bowling options and three of their country's strongest fielders.

Should the weather be overcast, their pace attack is one of the strongest in the world at exploiting favourable conditions. With swing, seam, pace, bounce and control on offer from whichever combination of Plunkett, Mahmood, Flintoff, Jon Lewis and James Anderson the selectors opt for, England will back themselves to bowl any opposition out.

Weaknesses

If the track is flat, however, there's little in the fast men to inspire supporter confidence. Indiscipline and inexperience will be punished, more so on shorter boundaries, and England's pace attack has more of this than most.

There still remains near-complete uncertainty over the composition of the top of the batting order. With four-five-six the first names on the team sheet, Vaughan (fitness depending), Joyce, Bell and Andrew Strauss are left competing over three places. Any conceivable permutation of their eventual order remains possible, and this suspense cannot possibly help the preparations of those involved, nor their chances of building a foundation for their powerful middle order to capitalise upon.

The final cause for concern comes behind the stumps. Chris Read and Geraint Jones' era of unconvincing glove-trading drew to an end before the CB Series with the shock call-up of Leicestershire's 36-year-old wicketkeeper Paul Nixon, whose biggest contributions have come through sledging. Whilst the ability to irritate Australians is an undeniably commendable personality trait, it's perhaps not the most solid of criteria for International selection. England will need their elder statesman to stand up with the bat - not just to the medium pace of Collingwood and Ravi Bopara - if the question mark over his slot is to recede.

Previous World Cups

Only Australia have reached more World Cup finals than England - but the fact remains that England have never won the biggest prize in ODI cricket. Geoff Boycott and Mike Brearley's sedentary opening stand handed the 1979 final to the West Indies, whilst Mike Gatting's astoundingly poorly-chosen reverse sweep did much the same for Australia eight years on. The 1992 defeat had more to do with the brilliance of Imran Khan's Pakistan than any failing on England's part, but since then the English World Cup pedigree is limited at best.

Qualifying for the Quarter Finals in 1996 almost by default, they were blown away by Sri Lanka, whilst their two most recent outings have seen England fail to progress past the group stage. Whilst their 2003 disappointment - shrouded beneath political pressure and rain in Zimbabwe - was more creditable on-field than the 1999 disaster, when the hosts crashed out of their own tournament before the official song could be released, England know that they cannot countenance a third consecutive early exit.

1975: Semi Finalists - Lost to Australia
1979: Runners Up - Lost to West Indies
1983: Semi Finalists - Lost to India
1987: Runners Up - Lost to Australia
1992: Runners Up - Lost to Pakistan
1996: Quarter Final - Lost to Sri Lanka
1999: Group Stage
2003: Group Stage

Predicted Finish 2007

England will have more than enough strength to account for Kenya and Canada in their group matches, but the prospect of the subsequent match-ups against fellow full members in the Super Eight is a harder one to predict. Whilst they possess an impressive complement of match-winners, there are too many weak links and grey areas in the side to have confidence in England being able to produce the consistency of performance required to progress to the semi finals or beyond.

England World Cup Squad
Michael Vaughan (captain), Ian Bell, Andrew Strauss, Ed Joyce, Paul Collingwood, Andrew Flintoff, Kevin Pietersen, Jamie Dalrymple, Paul Nixon, Liam Plunkett, James Anderson, Monty Panesar, Jon Lewis, Sajid Mahmood, Ravinder Bopara

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