England face a problem. Forget the small matter of being one defeat away from a fifth-successive World Cup fiasco; we’re all familiar with that scenario by now. No, what must really be toying with their minds ahead of tomorrow’s game in Chennai is where to place West Indies.
The conundrum goes like this: when England take on the big guns, they play with spirit – the occasionally flawed run-chase against India, the bowling fightback against South Africa. But when they take on the supposed pop-guns, they are paralysed by analysis – too many bouncers against the Netherlands, too much length against Kevin O’Brien, not enough use of the feet against Bangladesh.
The analogy even holds good for their two warm-up games in Fatullah: tentative against Canada, England blew away Pakistan – even if Shahid Afridi and Abdul Razzaq had the night off.
But what about the Windies? Their world ranking suggests they belong in the second group: they are eighth in the ICC one-day table, a single point ahead of Bangladesh (and 24 points behind seventh-placed New Zealand). Yet their cast of characters suggests otherwise: Chris Gayle, Shiv Chanderpaul, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Kieron Pollard, Sulieman Benn and Kemar Roach. Pop-guns or big guns? England will hardly know what to do with themselves.
Knackered and fed up they may be, but England’s best hope of giving themselves a chance of reaching the last eight (don’t forget: victory for Bangladesh over South Africa on Saturday would render irrelevant an England win tomorrow) is to recreate the fearlessness that informed their 50-over cricket between the two 6-1 defeats to Australia in September 2009 and February 2011 – and which was evident until they took the powerplay against India in Bangalore.
Never was their departure from a philosophy that had served them well more gruesomely evident than during Ian Bell’s 23-ball five against the Bangladeshis.
While Sky’s pundits back in the studio chose to get stuck into that perennial scapegoat Jonathan Trott (who has hit just the four fifties in five innings so far and compiled a match-winning stand with Ravi Bopara against South Africa), it was Bell who should have attracted their ire – because it was Bell who had mislaid his natural game.
The effect could become magnified tomorrow if the Chennai pitch is anything like the dustbowl which turned the South Africa game into a thriller. Batting will require patience, skill and a clear head: Trott alone in this England line-up appears to have the first; Eoin Morgan has the second; not many currently have the third. It could be a struggle.
But the worst thing, after all the careful work that has gone into England’s one-day gameplan, would be to go out with a whimper. There’s only one thing for it: imagine that these West Indians are up there with the 1975 and 1979 World Cup winners and England will cruise home.
Lawrence Booth writes on cricket for the Daily Mail and you can sign up here for his weekly newsletter ‘the Top Spin’, which was named Online Column of the Year at the 2010 Sports Journalists’ Association awards. He has also been named as the next editor of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack