Tomorrow’s the day when the chickens may come home to roost out here for England’s cricketers.
The signs for the World Cup Super Eights game against Sri Lanka — and next Sunday's match against Australia — aren’t favourable. But they simply must post two victories against outstanding opposition.
By my calculations, England must win at least three of their remaining five Super Eights games to have a chance of getting to the semi-finals. Four would help them breathe easier. But where will they achieve them?
Bangladesh, I would have thought. West Indies, judging by the host nation’s lamentable form and morale but that match — in Barbados on April 21st — is the last each will play in the Super Eights. By then, the result could be immaterial.
Sri Lanka loom first. They know that defeat tomorrow will be a major blow, after losing to South Africa in the qualifying stages.
How can England beat Sri Lanka? Michael Vaughan seemingly has faith in only two of his bowlers — Andrew Flintoff and Monty Panesar — and Sanath Jayasuriya will be salivating at the prospect of tucking into the erratic Sajid Mahmood and Jimmy Anderson. Jayasuriya is highly motivated for this tournament at the age of 37 and remains one of the most dangerous openers in the game.
England just can’t seem to get going. They’ve had three games in a row against minnows – Canada, Kenya and Ireland — and they haven’t summoned the necessary intensity to blow them away, as well as finding confidence.
The top three aren’t getting enough runs. Between them, Vaughan, Ed Joyce and Ian Bell have appeared in 138 one-day internationals and they have mustered one hundred between them. Every other side in the last eight has managed more from its first three — including Ireland and Bangladesh.
Kevin Pietersen is now ranked number one batsman in the world in one-dayers, which must make Ricky Ponting guffaw. It’s now 31 innings since Pietersen posted a century, back in February 2005.
Yet the line coming out of Team England is basically ‘It’ll be Alright on the Night’, that all will fall into place when the key matches against the best sides come round. Their amazing success in the recent one-day series in Australia allows England’s squad to make optimistic noises with a straight face. But they shouldn’t assume you can just turn it on like a tap.
The way that Australia went about their business against the West Indies was hugely impressive. The world champions don’t do coasting, relying on building up momentum. Their total of 322-6 was their lowest so far in this World Cup. Already, a month from the final, the only tension surrounds who will face them on April 28.
It’s a dreadful shame that the West Indies look like bowing out prematurely. There are clearly problems in selection and the captain, Brian Lara isn’t hiding the fact that he doesn’t have sole say in picking the team. His press conference after the defeat by New Zealand was brutally honest, as he described West Indies’ position as ‘desperate’.
Lara’s batting has had a hint of desperation about it. He still plays the odd glittering stroke, but doesn’t suggest permanence at the crease. To those of us who see him as a modern cricketing icon, it’s surprising to hear how opinions are divided about Lara in the Caribbean.
Many feel he has abused his wonderful talent in recent years by a vigorous social life. That may be so, but he was hardly monastic when setting so many records by wondrous batting. Too late to expect Lara to change his ways. He should have had greater support from the team.
Meanwhile, the exuberance of cricket in the West Indies has been sapped by this tournament. When you get to the various grounds, you are lectured on the PA system about what you can’t do. Your senses are assailed by the deafening World Cup song that never seems to end.
If you’re looking for various snack bars, you have to learn that they are called ‘concessions’. Not that there’s anything concessionary about the prices, they are a rip-off.
The matchday programme, which is hardly updated, costs a cool four quid. When the locals are dropped off a mile from the ground, it costs another four quid to get another shuttle bus into the stadium — and the bus only moves when it’s full. Or you can always walk.
In Antigua, the average minimum wage is around US$100 and that’s the price of the top ticket for the World Cup games.
The cheapest is US$20 to sit in the seats where there’s no protection from the unrelenting sun. It used to be much more enjoyable watching international cricket in the West Indies.
It was an intoxicating experience to sit with the knowledgeable locals, sharing a few beers, relishing their joie de vivre. They hadn’t been priced out of it, and I found them the fairest cricket fans in the world. That was certainly the view of many England players of my experience. They compared the respect shown to them in the West Indies to the abuse heaped on them in South Africa and Australia.
So we still wait for the 2007 World Cup to catch fire. It’s proving a long wait.
Update on Tom Cartwright, who is recovering painfully and slowly from a serious heart attack.
Tom, a splendid all-rounder for Warwickshire and one of the best coaches never to have been used by England, cannot converse with his beloved family, but is aware of what’s going on, I’m told by Stephen Chalke, the author of a splendid recent biography of the great man.
This book is so full of insights by Tom into the ills of the modern English game that I’m going to include one of them each week over the next few weeks, partly in tribute to an outstanding man but also because this 71-year-old was so in touch with current cricket. I hope many good judges will nod at his wisdom.
This one’s about the development of sports science and computers among modern coaches.
"It’s staggering. You’ve got people bowling for England who have served no apprenticeship in the game at all, and they’re being guided by coaches who have never even been successful in county cricket.
"They’re nice lads, good coaches in the right setting, but they’re like the St John’s Ambulance. You’re pleased to have them at the village fete, but they aren’t expected to perform heart by-pass operations, are they?"
And if anyone doubts Tom Cartwright’s stature, they should have been standing alongside this columnist in the last fortnight as he digested the tributes from a couple of useful former players who’d benefited from his coaching. Blokes called Viv Richards and Ian Botham.