England has the last laugh

Ian Bell, the Player of the Series.-AP

England’s brand of cricket was much better than India’s and the host team thoroughly deserved to win the NatWest series. Over to S. Dinakar.

As the dust settled on a one-day series of dramatic swings, Paul Collingwood was out in the middle, savouring a famous 4-3 NatWest triumph at Lord’s.

A footsoldier once, he is now the captain. And the man of few words has already shown that he has more than a few tricks up his sleeve. England, under Collingwood, is on the path to becoming a vibrant force in ODI cricket.

The other evening at a gloomy, rainy Leeds, Collingwood batted with fierce focus, intensity and a dash of bravado even as England was sinking. The host lost, but the battling captain made a statement.

England’s World Cup campaign was essentially an unhappy one. There was an element of friction between the two leadings lights of the team, Michael Vaughan and Andrew Flintoff, and the morale of the team suffered.

Actually, England’s fifth-placed finish in the Caribbean was not the worst of displays. However, the off-the-field events caused the tour to be remembered for the wrong reasons. Vaughan was not pulling his weight in the abbreviated form of the game and the side required fresh direction.

Collingwood lacks Vaughan’s charisma or vision and is, perhaps, less of a strategist, but there is a quiet resilience in the man that has not gone unnoticed by the English selectors.

England is making a conscious bid to prepare a side for the next World Cup, and a few of the omissions, such as the dropping of the enterprising but aging ’keeper-batsman Paul Nixon, have been debatable.

The selectors, clearly, are banking on youth to provide the side a new dimension. The indications are that this English cricket team, flexible in nature, is moving in the right direction.

The side has multi-dimensional cricketers in Stuart Broad, Ravi Bopara, Dimitri Mascarenhas, Collingwood himself, and Luke Wright. And then there is Andrew Flintoff.

In how England manages Flintoff’s left ankle in the days ahead could hold the key to the team’s successes. Impact players come rare.

Collingwood underlined Flintoff’s importance to the attack when he said, “The Indian batsmen had just seen off the new ball pair when this big fella (Flintoff) comes in and bowls at over 90 miles per hour.”

England has a zestful opening pair in James Anderson and Stuart Broad. Anderson, in particular, has been swinging the ball away, often at red hot pace, more consistently. The young Broad is learning.

Flintoff, as the first change, provides the attack with the cutting edge. The batsmen are confronted with steepling bounce and two-way seam movement in the middle-overs — Flintoff pushes them on to the back-foot rarely providing them width or length — and sizzling reverse swing in the end overs.

The 10 overs from Flintoff are more than just 60 balls. They put the batsmen under immense pressure, creating wicket-taking opportunities for the rest of the pack in the process. In a team-game, he stands alone.

Collingwood has acknowledged that it is not the easiest of things asking his trump-card, “Are you fit enough to bowl?” before every game. In the decider at Lord’s, Flintoff bounded in after being injected with steroids in his left ankle. This was the deciding game, but fielding a still injured Flintoff represented a risk.

The chances are that in the days ahead, Flintoff, given his value to the side, will be wrapped in cotton wool and let loose only in matches of importance. In how he handles Flintoff lies Collingwood’s biggest test. At Lord’s, he used the admirable all-rounder in four bursts, and we will, most likely, witness more short spells from Flintoff in the days to come.

With left-arm spinner Monty Panesar, another class act, contributing much to the English attack and others who can chip in with more than a few overs, Collingwood has options to juggle with when it comes to the fifth bowler.

England also has admirable batting depth. Ravi Bopara is a cool head in the climactic phase, can rotate the strike, pick his spots on the field. Mascarenhas is a stunning striker of the ball and a medium-pacer with variations. Stuart Broad has what it takes to be a genuine all-rounder. He moves the ball in the mid 80s and is a lower-order batsman with the right temperament and a reasonable technique. Luke Wright has to hone his skills as a paceman but is an exciting shot-maker and a brilliant fielder; his diving effort at square-leg to take a full-blooded pull from Gautam Gambhir at Lord’s was, arguably, the best catch of the series.

The English think-tank has been burning midnight oil. The move to promote Ian Bell to the No. 3 slot proved a master-stroke. The right-hander grew in confidence and this reflected in his shot-making in the Power Plays. Bell has fluent footwork, has strokes on both sides of the wicket, and can build monuments. The Player of the Series, he certainly was.

Alastair Cook is progressing as an ODI batsman, even if he went off the boil in the latter stages of the series. Kevin Pietersen, as influential as they come, found his rhythm at the business end like champions do, Collingwood revealed both his stroke-play and tenacity and the pugnacious Owais Shah indicated that he might, after all, have a future with the England side.

On the flip side, Matthew Prior, despite some either brave or desperate blows, has not impressed as an opener; he has been found out technically. England will have to rethink on Cook’s opening partner, assuming that Wright’s elevation at Lord’s was a one-off plan to surprise India.

England fielded well under pressure, except at The Oval, and displayed the kind of intensity often lacking in its ODI sides.

India, given the manner the side fielded for a major part of the series, did not deserve to win. The team’s cricket is streaked with inconsistency. Brilliant one moment...

India relies too heavily on starts and its three victories in the series were achieved after Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly had laid a solid platform. If the rest of the batsmen were exposed early to the new ball, the Indian batting tended to come apart. This is a very worrying sign, since Tendulkar and Ganguly are not getting any younger.

Rolling the years back, Tendulkar batted with great poise and timing and had it not been for an umpring error by Aleem Dar at Lord’s, could have ended his last tour of England in a blaze of glory. Ganguly, shrewdly, played second fiddle to an inspired Tendulkar and bowled a crafty spell at Leeds.

India has some major issues to grapple with in limited overs cricket. If the side plays seven batsmen — the strategy was partly successful with Robin Uthappa making the difference in The Oval cauldron — it is definitely a paceman short. The side misses a pace-bowling all-rounder.

India’s bowling at the Death — the reverse swing and yorkers are a rarity here — has been mostly disappointing. The think-tank also has to ensure that India has a right-left combination with the new ball. If the team-management is not convinced with either Ajit Agarkar or Munaf Patel, who still has serious issues to resolve on the ‘match-fitness’ front, S. Sreesanth should be inducted.

There is something very predictable about an all-left new ball pair even if one of the bowlers is the accomplished Zaheer Khan.

The think-tank also needs to pick ‘horses for courses.’ The two spinners, Piyush Chawla and Ramesh Powar, had done a commendable job in the series. However, India, on a cloudy Saturday morning at Lord’s, had to pick three pacemen even if it meant giving the inconsistent Ajit Agarkar another fling, simply because such a ploy represented India’s best chance in the conditions. And Agarkar had scalped with the new and semi-new ball in the series.

Since Dravid had just two pacemen and two spinners, he did what his team composition dictated — he batted under a cloud cover. India, from that moment, had a mountain to climb.

The England pacemen called the shots in the morning when, as is so often the case at the Lord’s, there was swing, seam movement and carry for the pacemen. Mahendra Singh Dhoni fought hard for a 50 that included an incredible six over long-on off Anderson. But then, a score of 187 was grossly inadequate, even if England lost a couple of wickets for virtually nothing.

As Dravid admitted, “England was a deserving winner of the series.” The pragmatic Collingwood even smiled at the end. He could afford it.

THE SCORES

NatWest Series, Final ODI, Lord’s, September 8, 2007. England won by seven wickets.

India: S. Ganguly c Flintoff b Anderson 15; S. Tendulkar c Prior b Flintoff 30; G. Gambhir c Wright b Anderson 12; R. Dravid c Prior b Flintoff 0; Yuvraj Singh c Collingwood b Mascarenhas 28; R. Uthappa c Anderson b Mascarenhas 22; M. Dhoni c Anderson b Flintoff 50; R. Powar (run out) 10; P. Chawla st. Prior b Mascarenhas 0; Zaheer Khan b Panesar 7; R. P. Singh (not out) 1; Extras (lb-8, nb-4) 12. Total (in 47.3 overs) 187.

Fall of wickets: 1-26, 2-52, 3-53, 4-59, 5-106, 6-119, 7-147, 8-148, 9-160.

England bowling: Anderson 9-1-28-2; Broad 10-0-44-0; Flintoff 8.3-0-45-3; Mascarenhas 10-2-23-3; Wright 2-0-11-0; Panesar 8-2-28-1.

England: M. Prior c Dhoni b R. P. Singh 0; L. Wright c & b R. P. Singh 0; I. Bell (run out) 36; K. Pietersen (not out) 71; P. Collingwood (not out) 64; Extras (lb-8, w-9) 17. Total (for three wkts., in 36.2 overs) 188.

Fall of wickets: 1-10, 2-11, 3-74.

India bowling: Zaheer 9-1-40-0; R. P. Singh 7-0-40-2; Chawla 9-1-44-0; Ganguly 4-0-13-0; Powar 5.2-0-32-0; Yuvraj 2-0-11-0.