A week is such a long time on a tour when the games come thick and fast.
In my last column, the rumours about Duncan Fletcher’s future and the general air of haplessness about England’s performances were the main themes.
Now we’re all wondering if, despite themselves, England will creep into the Tri-Nations Series finals against the best team in the world — even though England have played well just once in seven qualifying matches.
By the time you read this, you will know the outcome of the game taking place against New Zealand that will determine who plays Australia over the next week.
Do not be taken in by the easy slur that England’s players can’t wait to go home after so many months on the road out here. Not so.
One more week in Australia won’t make a deal of difference, even though the plane to the Caribbean for the World Cup awaits them on March 2. But the practical experience they would pick up against Australia from a potential three games over this next week far outweighs the prospect of home comforts.
England are markedly lacking in one-day expertise and experience. Only Paul Collingwood and Andrew Flintoff have played more than 100 one-dayers while the other two squads in this tournament are awash with players who have been involved in this sort of pressure for years.
At least Australia have been given a fright in the last few matches. Their collective complacency and arrogance have been almost insufferable.
The TV adverts for Channel 9 say things like ‘Can they give us a game tomorrow?’ and that’s what the Kiwis have done, in particular. They must be wondering just what they have to do to get over the line finally. They keep coming so close.
As for England, we’ll always have Sydney, to paraphrase the line from Casablanca. After nine attempts — some more useless than others — it was sweet to see them hammer the Aussies last Friday.
That morning, the Sydney tabloid’s headline carried the plea: 'A message to the worst England team to visit these shores — HAVE A GO!’ Well they did and the result was as gratifying as it was surprising.
Next day, the Aussie papers were hard at their propaganda work. ‘England breaks out of coma’ read one headline. ‘Miracle’ ran another.
Ed Joyce’s impressive century was seized upon as evidence of England’s lack of talent — ‘Irishman inspires shock victory’. You just can’t win in this country if you’re a Pom cricketer.
After 94 days of humiliation, contempt and derision, England couldn’t even win some respect. The jingoistic coverage was all about complacent Australian selections — resting Brett Lee and Ricky Ponting — and Andrew Symonds’ arm injury which probably prevented another routine Aussie win.
Even the bookies, those hard-nosed assessors of form and potential, climbed in. On the morning of the Sydney match, they were offering odds of 6-1 against England. In a two-horse race!
They were the longest odds against England in any of their previous 454 ODIs, dating back to 1971. Had they been that bad in this competition?
Well yes. Those two awful defeats in Adelaide proved the nadir. They just couldn’t get any worse. The finger was pulled out resoundingly.
Luck played a large factor, as it usually does. Shaun Tait’s howler, dropping Joyce at third man when he’d scored six, was an hilarious echo of village-green cricket. Joyce knew it was his day and a century was there for the taking.
Warwickshire’s Ian Bell also played an important role. Bell has been frustrating to watch in this series as he plays with increasing assurance until getting himself out when set.
At Sydney, he and Joyce — who have become firm friends on this tour — ran their sharp singles with cheeky aplomb and refused to be intimidated by the Aussie bravado.
Bell’s body language is unrecognisable from the choirboy diffidence of the 2005 Ashes series. It still rankles with him that he missed out on a century in the Test series over here, after passing 50 on four occasions, but he is starting to look a well-rounded player in all competitions now.
As you’d expect from a modern Warwickshire batsman, the reverse sweep is working well and his driving over extra cover is commanding.
The Aussie players now clearly respect Bell. He is nailed on for the World Cup and at No 3, a pivotal position, one in which versatility and the ability to think quickly on your feet are paramount qualities.
I'm not sure if Andrew Strauss is going to make the Caribbean, though. That would have been unthinkable a few weeks ago, but he is still having a shocker.
A series of bad umpiring decisions have robbed him of time at the crease and he’s being shuffled up and down the order, decreasing his stature. Strauss is part of Duncan Fletcher’s short list of players he confides in and rates very highly, so he might squeak into the final 15 — to be named next week — but he is no longer an automatic choice. With Joyce set to open with Michael Vaughan and Kevin Pietersen, Collingwood and Flintoff following Bell, it may be that there’s no room for Strauss. That would be hard on a fine cricketer, a civilised and mature individual, but sentiment cannot be a factor in the World Cup.
I still don’t think England have a prayer in that competition. They are weak in the wicketkeeper/batsman role.
Paul Nixon may resemble Elmer Gantry, the fire-and-brimstone revivalist preacher once memorably played by Burt Lancaster, but he is short of the necessary talent possessed by the likes of Adam Gilchrist, Kumar Sangakarra, Brendon McCullum and Mark Boucher. He is also 36.
When you bathe in Nixon’s glassy optimism, you can’t avoid a scenario where he’s told he has 30 minutes on this earth before a nuclear holocaust is about to break. Nixon would reply, ’OK, time is short, but we can take some positives out of that’. A delightful, zany character — who annoys the hell out of the Aussies — but he’s not up to scratch at international level.
Quite what Chris Read makes of Nixon’s selection is something we can only guess about. The poor lad looks very down, aware that Fletcher doesn’t rate him, but he still gives everything to practice and is popular with his team-mates.
It’s been a long three months for Read. He will be watching the Fletcher situation with interest over the next few weeks.