Hoping to set the order right

Last August, in an old pub in London, Julian Guyer — the affable AFP correspondent and secretary of The Cricket Writers Club — hosted a party for the visiting Indian scribes, who were there, following the pursuits of M. S. Dhoni’s men in the Test series. There was warmth in the air, wine in the glass, fish and chips on the plate and the place had an overwhelming sense of history.

Soon talks veered towards Kevin Pietersen’s book and the priorities of English cricket. Sensing its chance, Sportstar drew Guyer aside and asked him about the diffidence that grips England when it comes to the World Cup. “The Ashes is big, in a sense it is the central theme of English cricket. Yes, the World Cup is important and if England loses, people do get upset but then life goes on. But when it comes to the Ashes, that is bigger as far as common perceptions go,” Guyer said.

Like an odd couple keeping up some pretence of warmth for the outside world, England and the World Cup have struck together in a weird tandem. Host to the first three editions — 1975, 1979 and 1983 — and again in 1999, England has failed to leave a lasting mark in the quadrennial event.

Skipper Mike Gatting’s suicidal reverse-sweep against his Aussie counterpart Allan Border in the 1987 final at a raucous Eden Gardens ended England’s chances of a title triumph. And in the 1979 and 1992 summit clashes the individual brilliance of Vivian Richards and Wasim Akram were too difficult for England to surmount.

England, more often than not, is more comfortable playing in the traditional whites rather than coloured clothing, under lights, with a nasty required run-rate staring it in the face. The team’s lone limited-overs success came in the T20 World Cup in West Indies in 2010, where the talented Pietersen was the Player of the Tournament.

The limited-overs game has almost always remained an afterthought in England’s cricket schedule with the focus firmly on the Ashes. But, England heads into the 2015 World Cup with a strong team, hoping to change its career graph in the mega event.

Pietersen, — the team’s greatest match-winner of the recent era — however, has been banished and England will depend on the batting pyrotechnics of captain Eoin Morgan for much of its success.

The skipper, too, understands and appreciates the abilities of the missing Pietersen and has expressed his opinion in the favour of the batsman’s presence in the squad but was quick to strike a more practical stand, clarifying that KP doesn’t figure in the scheme of things.

Distractions aside, England has shown the right intent in sacking Alastair Cook as the ODI captain. Morgan will have to bear the burden of English hopes and has done relatively well as the team reached the tri-series final before losing to Australia (also involving India).

Morgan, along with Ian Bell, will be the fulcrum of England’s batting, while the bowling unit with James Anderson and Stuart Broad — who is recovering well from his niggles — can be a handful for any opposition. The presence of a few all-round players lends the team flexibility, though, the poor returns of wicketkeeper Jos Butler and all-rounder Ravi Bopara, in the tri-series, will be a cause of concern.

Above all, England needs to demonstrate intent and the willingness to take the World Cup seriously. The draw looks kind enough to ensure a quarterfinal berth for the team. But can it go beyond?

* * * A proven bowling unit

England has a decent pace attack but its batsmen got a working over from Mitchell Johnson in the last Ashes in Australia. The drubbing, however, allowed the willow-wielders an opportunity to fathom the pitches and test their mettle against a mean fast bowler. The bowling unit kept India under leash in the recent tri-series and proved its mettle once again. Though, Australia’s domination of the same attack might offer a counter-point to mull over for Eoin Morgan.

When it comes to the innovative-quotient, England at times comes second-best. ODIs are won with rapid strategy-shifts and the ability to think on one’s feet. England is fine when it comes to conventional Test matches, but lateral thinking — much needed in ODIs — goes missing from its armour in limited-overs contest. The ability to tackle inflationary required run-rates or the strength to come back after a mauling from rival batsmen will influence how far England progresses past the quarterfinals.

* * * PLAYERS TO WATCH

Eoin Morgan: After Kevin Pietersen's forced exit, England leans on Morgan for flair and chutzpah. Stepping into Pietersen's boots, replacing Alastair Cook as captain, saddled with the expectations of altering his team's fortunes for the better, Morgan has his plate full. The left-hander, apart from a 121 against Australia in Sydney, failed to consistently perform in the recent tri-series. The captain needs to ?nd his form soon for England to power ahead in the World Cup.

Ian Bell: Both the bulwark as well as the aggressor, Ian Bell remains a strong link to England's glory days, when the Ashes was won with unerring regularity. Bell is a busy batsman, capable of keeping the scoreboard ticking, moulding classicism with a penchant for urgency. As the senior professional, he has to anchor the middle-order and mentor the young batsmen.

James Anderson: The bowler should revel in conditions in Australia and New Zealand, which will suit his swing and seam style. The English skipper will want his strike bowler to pick early wickets and stop the opposition from getting a good start to its innings.

Stuart Broad: Anderson's menace is often amplified when Broad partners him. Tall and with the ability to hit the deck, Broad can test almost any batsmen. He has matured immensely over the years and his heightened game-sense and awareness will help England in tight situations.

* * * THE TEAM

Eoin Morgan (captain), Moeen Ali, James Anderson, Gary Balance, Ian Bell, Ravi Bopara, Stuart Broad, Jos Buttler (wicketkeeper), Steven Finn, Alex Hales, Chris Jordan, Joe Root, James Taylor, James Tredwell and Chris Woakes.

K. C. Vijaya Kumar