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England can benefit from May days

By Scyld Berry

Sunday, May 17, 1998

ALTHOUGH the World Cup final will not be staged until June 20 next year, it is conceivable the Texaco Trophy series between England and South Africa this week will offer a sneak preview.

South Africa have been the leading one-day side since the last World Cup, more so than the holders, Sri Lanka, and have won almost everything except their best-of-three finals against Australia when Steve Waugh said they would choke.

Maybe they did choke, but it is also the case that South Africa are a mightily efficient one-day side, who will soon overtake West Indies as the most successful one-day team in international history, but lack batting of the highest calibre.

England should be the other World Cup finalists if they maintain their form in one-day internationals at home. This is the one area of the game in which English cricket has come anywhere near to fulfilling itself: since 1993 they have won all six Texaco series, and lost only two out of 15 internationals, both at Trent Bridge, and one when the rubber was dead.

The reasons for this extraordinary state of affairs - England not squandering their resources - are not hard to find. By design, the players have been selected specifically for one-day cricket. By accident, they are fresh and at their peak for internationals in May, after the qualifying rounds of the Benson and Hedges Cup and before the season grinds them down.

May pitches also suit England far more than opponents who have recently landed and not adjusted to slow seamers. Only twice since 1993 have opponents scored 250, once each on the London grounds, and on both occasions England made more. So brilliant indeed has their one-day cricket been at home that England's one-day record abroad is all the more galling, not to mention their Test cricket here, there and everywhere.

The pitches were naturally a consideration when the ECB chose to stage the World Cup so early next season, starting on May 14. But the primary one, according to Terry Blake, their marketing manager, was that it had to be staged either before Wimbledon, or else afterwards, when the time for the Rugby World Cup would be fast approaching - and when conditions would have more favoured India and Sri Lanka, who are also in England's group.

I take England to win this Texaco series, if not the Cup itself, and not simply because the South Africans will be under-cooked and do not have the strokeplayers to make the most of the first 15 overs. England lost the one-day plot in the West Indies, when they were beaten 4-1, but the mistakes they made then are easily rectifiable.

One of them was the lack of specialist batting to follow Nick Knight, whose form was purple - in a warm-up match he smashed 38 off an over from a Barbados opening bowler, albeit including three no-balls - and Alec Stewart. This time Ben Hollioake is going to be dropped for moderate all-round performances but also perhaps as a shot across his bows. Instead, specialist batting will come from Chris Adams, who is starting to make the most of his shot-making ability as Sussex's captain, and Alistair Brown, who will be better off in them middle order. Even though Graeme Hick has got his feet moving again in the last week, he may lose his place to Nasser Hussain and Graham Thorpe has recovered from disc trouble.

A case could also be made for Darren Maddy while he is hot, to allow him to acclimatise to the international stage, but that would give the South Africans a sight of him; and he could not be expected to break up the Knight-Stewart partnership to advantage.

A second mistake in the West Indies was the absence of a second spinner. This will be rectified by the selection of Ashley Giles to partner Robert Croft at the Oval, where Giles made his debut last year, and probably at Old Trafford, where the pitch turned when it was used for a Sunday League match earlier this season.

England also need opening bowlers who are fast and accurate enough to drive batsmen on to the back foot in the first 15 overs. Dean Headley, who has the former quality, and Dougie Brown, who has the latter, have both conceded more than five runs an over in internationals.

Comeback time for Chris Lewis again, therefore, as a Texaco series is not long enough for him to prove enigmatic. Darren Gough is better left alone, rather like Maddy, to find his full rhythm for the Tests.

The last mistake to be rectified is for Adam Hollioake to be more flexible. When he became captain, it was right that he should lay down basic patterns so that cricketers who had not played together before could get to know each other. Henceforth he must be more adventurous in seizing the moment, unlike in St Vincent, when he made little attempt to bowl out West Indies in his defence of 150.

England's selectors must be flexible too. There are advantages in shaping a World Cup squad at this stage, so that the mass of details which will make the difference between winning and losing close games - the sliding save for instance - can be passed on within the dressing-room. But there are plenty of medium-paced all-rounders in addition to the Flemings and Ealhams, like Graham Rose, Mark Alleyne, Vince Wells, Ronnie Irani and Andrew Flintoff, whose bowling is starting to return after chronic back trouble.

Fortunately, England will have the mini-World Cup in Bangladesh in late October, when the Ashes party is simultaneously in Australia, to test out the last-chancers.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 17 May1998 - 10:25