England have been the bridesmaid but not the bride in three of the five World Cups played to date. To reach theLahore final this time they will need much more good luck than they have ever called for in the past.
Recently, in South Africa, they used the seven one-day internationals to establish the strongest combination of players for their World Cup programme which is mainly in Pakistan. It was not an easy exercise for Ray Illingworth, the manager, and captain Mike Atherton because those flown out from an English winter took time to acclimatise. They also had to form their judgements with Pakistan pitches in mind, and it is this particular factor which has me worrying about their ability to score enough runs.
Atherton and Neil Fairbrother apart, the England batsmen are biffers of the ball, used to firm covered pitches in England: they are excellent at driving the ball on the up. Even their defensive strokes crash to mid-off or mid-on. I have to wonder how they will cope on slower surfaces which possibly keep a little low, some taking spin. I do not see Robin Smith, Graeme Hick or Alec Stewart pushing for smart singles, sliding into creases and spinning around with their noses close to the ground for the return run in the inimitable manner of Javed Miandad. On the other hand, I see Graham Thorpe and Neil Fairbrother doing exactly that.
England’s strongest suit will be the all-round qualities which Illingworth recognises to be essential to a World Cup win. Just think of Australia who use Mark and Steve Waugh to fill in ten overs between them, yet they are frontline batsmen. Graeme Hick, with his slow off-spin, may be able to help his captain out here if there is no pace in the pitch, as well as all-rounders like Craig White, who bowls nippy medium stuff, Dominic Cork too, a leading bowler who can bat if his eccentric temperament does not run away with him, and Richard Illingworth, a frugal left-arm spinner who has a first class century to his name. Yes, all-rounders will be England’s strength.
Of course, a winning side in one-day internationals is usually an excellent fielding side. England were not as good as South Africa who were quite outstanding. There were times when ground-fielding was ragged in the outfield but here again, it depends on which combination is fielded. There are no hiding places in a World Cup butEngland will be sure to look for strength in the field from Graeme Hick’s superb throwing from long distances, the wonderful catching reflexes of Atherton and Fairbrother in ‘the ring’, Thorpe’s safe hands and, I would guess, the wicket-keeping of Jack Russell.
So we come to the major weakness, the bowling. Having all-rounders is well enough, but there need to be specialist bowlers who can quickly ‘read’ opposing batsmen and be trusted to bowl to their fields. Cork is a promising attacking bowler, looking for swing and late movement off the pitch. When he is under pressure his line drifts expensively down the leg side. Darren Gough, the young Yorkshireman who has improved a great deal, does have a slower ball and an off-cutter which stop the batsmen wading into his bowling. England must not be underrated and it would not surprise me if they win the tournament, but if they do, they will have to raise a cup to good fortune and the professional perseverance which is the habit of our domestic, professional game.