The `final' barrier

England's inability to join the ranks of the champions is an embarrassment, even for a country with a barely disguised preference for Test cricket, writes Rory Dollard.

Since the inaugural World Cup in 1975, an array of otherwise distinguished England captains have endured a conspicuous lack of success in cricket's flagship one-day tournament. Some misses have been nearer than others — three skippers have taken the side as far as the final — but England's inability to join the ranks of the champions is an embarrassment, even for a country with a barely disguised preference for Test cricket.

Michael Vaughan's task in guiding an unfancied England side demoralised by a barren Ashes campaign to a maiden win seems formidable, but how does he compare to some of his unsuccessful predecessors?

The first man to lead England in a limited overs campaign was Scottish-born batsman Mike Denness. His appointment as captain was not universally welcomed and although his immaculate outward appearance and correct, forthright technique appealed to powerbrokers at the MCC, there was a suspicion that he was not a good enough batsman to warrant a place in the side.

The influential opener Geoffrey Boycott had made no secret of his own designs on the job and was openly annoyed by the appointment, eventually embarking on an extended hiatus from the game and hampering Denness' prospects.

In 1975, with home advantage and a favourable draw there was an expectation that Denness might deliver success. He confounded the critics to bat admirably in the competition but England's 93 all out against Australia in the semi-final fatally undermined the team's claims on the trophy, and loosened Denness' grasp on a captaincy he would soon lose to Tony Greig.

Four years later, England went one step closer to victory, but even Mike Brearley — widely accepted as one of the game's finest ever leaders and author of the strategist's bible `The Art of Captaincy' — could not deliver victory.

In 1981 Brearley's cerebral, tactically astute handling of the position contributed as much as Ian Botham's famous Headingley fireworks to hand England a famous Ashes victory but a World Cup win two years earlier would have ranked almost as highly.

After beating strong sides from Australia and New Zealand on the way to the final Brearley had the misfortune to come up against the pre-eminent West Indian side of that, or arguably any other, generation.

Viv Richards hit 138 in the final and Joel Garner took five for 38 in the reply as England were steam-rollered.

Ironically Brearley, whose batting was often considered a secondary attribute to his captaincy, played one of his best innings for England, top-scoring with 64 in the showcase.

In 1983 it was the turn of Bob Willis to mastermind the English campaign.

Willis was a rarity in the international game — a fast-bowling captain — although it was the paceman's seniority and experience that earned him the honour rather than any obvious leadership qualities.

Willis' England lost six of the eight one-day games prior to the World Cup and despite picking up 10 wickets in an extended group stage, he could not steer a path past eventual winners India.

One of the members of Willis' talented but leaderless top order, Mike Gatting, was next to fall short in the tournament.

Gatting's time as captain is best remembered for his spearheading of an Ashes win on Australian territory but glory in the 1987 World Cup would have matched it. Some lacklustre early performances were forgotten in the semifinal against India after Gatting (56) and Graham Gooch (115) smashed England to a second final appearance. But in the final they fell just seven short of Australia's 253.

Gatting made a solid 41 in the final but showed some questionable judgment when he was caught out reverse-sweeping Allan Border's first ball.

Gooch was in charge by the time England arrived to compete in the first ever multi-coloured, floodlit tournament in Australia and New Zealand, but while it was a new start for the competition, it was the same old story for the English.

Gooch demanded 100 percent commitment from his players and his emphasis on work ethic helped fashion the team into a sleek, professional unit.

One-day match-winners like Allan Lamb, Neil Fairbrother and Botham, in one last hurrah, provided the inspiration and their appearance in the final was no surprise. But Gooch's emphasis on hard graft and preparation could not steel the side against the subtleties of a Pakistan bowling attack that included Wasim Akram, Imran Khan and Mushtaq Ahmed. England were dismissed for 227 — 22 runs short of their target.

Gooch's successor, Michael Atherton, a highly intelligent player long tipped for captaincy, was at his happiest in the Test arena. His finest hour — a 643-minute, match-saving 185 not out against South Africa — gave a hint of his strengths but an essentially conservative England line-up were shown up in a tournament dominated by Sri Lanka's histrionics at the crease.

The Lancashire man must share the blame for a campaign where England's indecision stretched to the starting XI, which changed by the game, and batting order — with four opening partnerships tried in six matches. England were knocked out in the quarterfinals by the rampant Sri Lankans and Atherton's decision to try to combat their early-innings onslaughts by opening the bowling with off-spinner Richard Illingworth (one for 72 from 10 overs) was far from a masterstroke.

When Atherton's lengthy stint at the helm came to an end in 1998 the experienced Alec Stewart, five years his senior, was handed the job. At 35 Stewart was considered a safe pair of hands ahead of the first England-hosted tournament in 16 years, as one-day specialist Adam Hollioake was overlooked for the job.

In the event Stewart's England hit an all-time low, eliminated before the knockout stages after capitulating to India and South Africa in their only serious challenges.

His conduct as captain was always dignified but ultimately old fashioned, and he failed to inspire his charges as England limped out of their own tournament and Stewart compiled just 14 runs in the final three games.

Nasser Hussain came to power in partnership with new coach Duncan Fletcher, who was handed the responsibility of saving an England team in turmoil.

While the Essex man helped turn England's fortunes around in the longer form of the game, Hussain — another England skipper who struggled in the limited overs arena — made almost no progress on their ODI record. Hussain's side were outsiders going into the 2003 tournament but the political pressures surrounding England's fixture against Zimbabwe in Harare ruined their chances.

Under intense media glare and governmental pressure an obviously stressed Hussain played the roles of statesman, mediator and father figure (to the likes of 21-year-old James Anderson) superbly.

England were ultimately knocked out in the first round, having boycotted the Zimbabwe match on ethical grounds — but by that point Hussain's mind was far from the crease and he quit one-day cricket, mentally shot, soon after.

Vaughan's minimum target in the West Indies will be to better the performances of the last two England campaigns. England must reach the knockout phase to restore some credibility in the competition but their one-day performances under Vaughan have not been appreciably better than under Hussain or Stewart.

Vaughan's preparations have not run smoothly, with the loss of Marcus Trescothick to stress, Darren Gough and Simon Jones to injury and Steve Harmison's unexpected retirement from ODIs.

But the 32-year-old is not without some pedigree and took England to the final of the ICC Trophy, a mini-World Cup in all but name, in 2004.

A like performance would require all of the tactical verve, ingenuity and calmness under pressure that saw Vaughan mastermind his side's famous Ashes win against a superior Australia the following year. That series led to inevitable comparisons between the Yorkshireman and Brearley — but with World Cup success, Vaughan would succeed where even the quintessential captain could not.

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