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England on the up but concerns remain

Published: Monday, March 5, 2007, 23:53 [IST]
 
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England's transformation from World Cup washouts to serious contenders is bound to raise a few wry smiles from players more used to jeers than cheers.

Just a few weeks ago it was suggested England should not turn up in the Caribbean after being bowled out for 155, 120 and 110 in consecutive one-dayers.

But a run of four straight wins, including three over world champions Australia, saw them recover to take the triangular series.

However, before that astonishing turnaround, England had won just seven out of 31 one-day matches and hopes of a first World Cup trophy appeared absurd.

"I know momentum and confidence are crucial but don't let's kid ourselves that England are now the team everyone fears," ex-England captain Alec Stewart told the News of the World newspaper.

And West Indies legend Viv Richards, twice a World Cup winner, said: "Ever since they beat Australia you would think England have a chance.

"But I don't believe their one-day team is as good as they do. They might have got a tired Australia team in the end."

England's World Cup campaign could hinge on their opening Group C match against a dangerous New Zealand team.

With both sides all but certain to reach the second phase, the points carried over from a victory over a fellow qualifier could prove decisive in the Super Eights.

It is no criticism of England's resilience to point out that three dropped catches played a major part in their revival.

These allowed Ed Joyce and Paul Collingwood to score hundreds against Australia and New Zealand respectively after they were missed early on, and meant England did not slump to 33 for four in the first final when Glenn McGrath reprieved Ian Bell.

Now England are as entitled as anyone else to make the most of dropped catches. But they cannot expect so many gifts in the Caribbean.

Similarly, a coach is allowed to be lucky too. For much of the past four years Duncan Fletcher has appeared far less sure-footed in the one-day game than the Test arena.

However, thanks as much to a combination of absence and injury as inspired selection, England appear to have settled on a one-day team.

In a tournament where, given current trends, bat is likely to dominate ball, England have a trio of improving quicks in James Anderson, Liam Plunkett and Sajid Mahmood.

Anderson though has a back problem and fellow seamer Jon Lewis an ankle injury.

Monty Panesar, contrary to those who thought the left-armer was a Test specialist, has proved an effective one-day spin bowler while the World Cup could see off-spinner Jamie Dalrymple step up from his supporting role.

If, as England hope, dynamic batsman Kevin Pietersen is fit again after a rib injury, then the optimistic mood is understandable although the decision to take only one specialist 'keeper in Paul Nixon could backfire.

Of more pressing concern is England's top order. Omitting Mal Loye, one of the few naturally attacking England openers in Marcus Trescothick's absence, means the side lacks an option possessed by the leading contenders.

Loye's exit has come about because of the decision to include captain Michael Vaughan. After a year out with a knee problem, recent hamstring trouble saw the Yorkshire batsman play in just three of the Australia one-dayers.

Vaughan has never scored a one-day international hundred and fielding is not his strongest point.

There is also no fitness test that can mirror being in the field for 50 overs and, even though rules on replacements are less strict than in previous World Cups, England appear to be running the risk of disruption for a questionable benefit.

And what message does it send to Andrew Flintoff, who led the team to their one-day success in Australia, with the all-rounder not yet confirmed as England captain in the event of Vaughan's withdrawal?

Key Players: Pietersen, Flintoff, Collingwood, Bell, Strauss

Squad: Michael Vaughan (capt), James Anderson, Ian Bell, Ravi Bopara, Paul Collingwood, Jamie Dalrymple, Andrew Flintoff, Ed Joyce, Jon Lewis, Sajid Mahmood, Paul Nixon (wk), Monty Panesar, Kevin Pietersen, Liam Plunkett and Andrew Strauss.

England Factfile:

World Cup record: 1975 - semi-finalists; 1979 - runners-up; 1983 - semi-finalists; 1987 - runners-up; 1992 - runners-up; 1996 - quarter-finalists; 1999 - first round; 2003 - first round.

Overall playing record: Played: 458, Won: 221, Lost: 218, Tied: 4, No result: 15.

Highest innings total: 391-4 v Bangladesh, Nottingham, 2005.

Lowest innings total: 86 v Australia, Manchester, 2001.

Highest individual score: Robin Smith (167*).

Leading run-scorer: Alec Stewart (4677).

Best bowling: 6 for 31, Paul Collingwood v Bangladesh, 2005.

Leading wicket-taker: Darren Gough (234).

Highest partnership: Andrew Flintoff&Andrew Strauss (226, 4th wicket) v West Indies, Lord's, 2004.

Most catches (fieldsman): Graeme Hick (64).

Most dismissals (wk): Alec Stewart (174).

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