Vaughan's fitness vital

The first World Cup final victory can be a turning point in the English game's history. It can obliterate the memories of more than 35 years in which they have underperformed and wipe out the dreadful defeats in Australia this winter, writes Ted Corbett.

England for the World Cup, after three visits to the final without a single success, with an attitude problem towards one-day internationals, with injury doubts and only a brief flurry of triumph at the end of their recent tour of Australia on the plus side of this winter's equation?

No, I am not laughing, I am crying.

There are reasons to think they might reach their fourth final and at that point the Cup can go to either side.

After all, it was England's change in momentum that set Australia back on their heels after a year in which Ponting's pirates could do no wrong. Gutsy batting from Paul Collingwood, fearsome bowling from Andrew Flintoff, tactical input from Michael Vaughan and courageous back-up by Monty Panesar, Jamie Dalrymple and Ed Joyce; bless 'em it was a lovely way to end their three months of misery.

Besides they will have Kevin Pietersen back and heaven alone knows what runs he will blast on those West Indies pitches whether they are bouncy, according to the spies Australia have sent out, or low and slow, according to my memory stretching back 20 years.

There will be a few sleepless nights for bowlers who wonder how KP will fire after a compulsory rest following his rib injury and on a stage that will call up an audience of how many millions around the world.

Pietersen is showy, strutting and certain he is the best and the World Cup is just his sort of tournament whether he is hitting the ball towards the airport at St. Vincent or towards the harbour in Bridgetown.

Other teams will wish he was their man; England will be pleased they don't have to confront him.

They deserve all the applause for their efforts late on Down Under and give reason for Sunil Gavaskar to say in this magazine that they are the dark horses for the World Cup and for Vaughan to repeat that phrase as the team flew off to the Caribbean.

As I write Vaughan is the biggest problem England have. He has a wonky knee which he says is cured but which seemed, to me, to be the cause of his hamstring injury in Australia.

He says they are both cured but I have a feeling that he is favouring his knee so that too much pressure is being put on the rest of his body and that a weak spot, like the hamstring, may let him down again.

When he played you could sense the surge of power that ran through the England team that had struggled so pitifully in Australia.

The sight of him standing at mid-off, his left arm high in the air as he adjusted the field, caught the attention of players and spectators. Here, you felt, was a captain who knew precisely what he wanted, who had worked out all the permutations in advance, who would not at any time be a stride behind the swiftest of changing events.

When he batted Vaughan seemed back to the best of 2002-03 when he made three centuries in five Tests off the Aussies; silky smooth on the drive, powerful on the cut and supreme when he pulled out his trademark shot on one leg. A big score was on the horizon as he was hurt.

If he can play through the World Cup, England's hopes are bright. If he cannot Andrew Flintoff will take charge and lead by example, with bowling that never includes a bad spell and hitting that is so powerful it still makes Bobby Simpson break into a sweat.

Flintoff is not a great captain in the way that Mike Brearley, Len Hutton and Ray Illingworth were who by using tactical skills and huge cricketing brains were able to remove batsmen who were determined to stay.

Instead he says "Watch me, lads," as he pounds the ball into the dust and intimidates us all, whether we are crouching behind the couch in our living rooms, or standing beside him at mid-off, or facing him 20 yards away.

He bowled three maidens in 10 overs, against New Zealand in Brisbane, with Stephen Fleming on his way to 106 and the Kiwis sure they were on their way to victory.

Three maiden overs are almost unheard of in modern one-day cricket. I cannot think of a more impressive single feat in one-day cricket. Without the burden of leadership Flintoff will repeat that in the Caribbean and maybe more emphatically.

I hope that Andrew Strauss, a failure in every form of the game — due in part to a number of bad decisions — improves in this series.

Perhaps he should defend his corner more vigorously; perhaps he says so little that the selectors forget him. But if England need a captain in the longer term they may have to forget Flintoff and go back to Strauss who won his only series as captain and must have more to offer than the quiet word from slip which is his present contribution.

Many factors will unravel in West Indies. If England lose badly Duncan Fletcher, the coach, may go; if they win dramatically he is sure to stay, encouraged by David Morgan, chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, who cannot see that Fletcher and England need a change whatever the result.

I have been accused of damning Fletcher without justification; nothing could be further from the truth. He has dragged England into the 21st century, kept faith with his players, obtained the best possible results from their often limited skills.

They will achieve what results come their way in West Indies because of him, not despite him.

But if England are to move on they need a new voice in the dressing room, a new tactical approach, a fresh pair of eyes.

See what Tom Moody has done for Sri Lanka — my pick for the World Cup by the way — and the commonsense of John Buchanan who has come to appreciate that his time with Australia is done.

Under Fletcher's guidance England can win the World Cup 2007 and make us believe that these great players, even without the no-go men Marcus Trescothick and Steve Harmison, can continue to rise in the league tables, continue to sell-out the small English grounds and thrill those further afield.

The first World Cup final victory can be a turning point in the English game's history. It can obliterate the memories of more than 35 years in which they have underperformed and wipe out the dreadful defeats in Australia this winter.

Those beatings are too easy to recall for anyone to tip England to win against the might of the troubled Australia, the resurgent South Africa, my hope Sri Lanka, West Indies on their home soil and the rank outsiders from New Zealand.

But there is always one team ready to spring a surprise and, provided Vaughan stays fit, I see no reason why it should not be England.

Players to watch

Paul Collingwood: He has just had his 30th birthday and he has played first class cricket for 12 years. Yet, 18 months ago few outside his native Durham rated him. He clearly came as a surprise to the Australians who could not stop him scoring a double hundred in the second Test. He went quiet until leading England to success in the second half of the one-day tri series. West Indies ought to suit the clever changes to his medium pace bowling and he will make a sensational catch or two. But best of all is his correct strokeplay, particularly through the covers, and his robust leg-side hitting. Oh, just in case there is someone who fancies an exchange of views with this red-haired, muscular lad, he can look after himself in a heated debate as Shane Warne, Michael Hussey and the rest found out this winter.

Liam Plunkett: He bowls quickly with a deceptively easy action, he is able to bat at No. 8 — one of the important lower-order positions — with power and grace and like Collingwood he is a tough lad from Durham who is ready to do the hard work even though he is just 22. As he showed in Australia when he never got near the important matches until right at the end, he has patience too. He put his unwanted leisure time to good use in the same way that Neil Foster — a similar bowler — did 20 years ago by endless net sessions until injuries forced the selectors to take notice of his late swing out and, late in the innings, his reverse swing. Plunkett is my tip to be the young player of the tournament even against the most talented youths like New Zealand's Ross Taylor, Australia's Shaun Tait and Dwayne Bravo of West Indies.

Monty Panesar: He was another nobody a year ago but all the experts knew Monty was the next great slow left-arm bowler and now he is also one of the darlings of the sentimental English sporting public. His batting is not yet more than adequate and his fielding is enthusiastic but error-strewn; but even in Australia the crowds loved the way he relished his cricket. When he bowls there is a beauty in the flight and a disturbing amount of turn as he bids to be the rightful successor to a line of fine English slow left-arm bowlers. He gets the ball down the pitch quickly, varies length, and speed and flight and best of all he thinks. As W. Shakespeare said such men are dangerous and so he may prove on those slow Caribbean pitches.

Ted Corbett