England bid to complete circle from ridicule to glory
Gros Islet: England’s Twenty20 team have gone from national embarrassment to buoyant World Cup finalists in less than a year and a large part of the credit must go to three South Africans.
Ten months ago England made a humiliating exit from the Twenty20 World Cup with a defeat to cricketing minnows Netherlands at Lord’s.
Here in the Caribbean though, the team has cruised to victories with three wins out of three in the Super Eight stage followed by a comfortable win in the semi-final over Sri Lanka.
If celebrations of that win seemed muted it was because it came in such a routine manner -- England now expect to win games like that in Twenty20.
The defeat to the Dutch led many observers to bemoan the failure of the English at a version of the game they had invented; a regular lament heard across a number of sports.
It is a very different England team at this tournament and - slightly awkwardly for those who make sport an issue of national pride -- one in which captain Paul Collingwood is the only English-born player in the top five batsmen.
England’s most impressive performance was their victory over South Africa at the Kensington Oval in Barbados, a triumph in which the majority of England’s runs came from South African-born players.
One of those batsmen, Kevin Pietersen, who made his debut for England over five years ago, has long been England’s most effective strokeplayer in all forms of the game and he has shown why again with scores of 73 not out, 53 and 42 not out in his last three innings here.
But it is the two opening batsmen from Johannesburg who have made the difference from past teams.
Wicketkeeper Craig Kieswetter and left-hander Michael Lumb have brought just the kind of confident and explosive batting that is needed at the top of the order and in this tournament only Australia, with Dave Warner and Shane Watson, have had comparable starts.
Kieswetter, 22, moved to England to play cricket four years ago and was picked as soon as he became eligible while Lumb, whose English father Richard played for Yorkshire, has a decade of residence and cricketing experience in the country.
With a left-hand, right-hand combination, good technique and a positive attitude, the pair are a vast improvement on the Luke Wright-Ravi Bopara pairing used at the last Twenty20 World Cup.
“This is what we needed, a spark at the top of the order,” said Collingwood after Thursday’s win.
“Everybody saw it as a bit of a gamble, but we selected them on potential and we knew exactly what they could do.
“They’ve batted fantastically well and really helped the middle order to overcome totals,” he said.
After the experienced Collingwood at four comes the most specialized Twenty20 batsman in the England team - Eoin Morgan, born and bred in Dublin and a member of the Ireland World Cup team in the West Indies three years ago.
The key quality for a middle order Twenty20 batsmen is “improvisation” and little Morgan has plenty of tricks with reverse strokes and paddles used smartly to take advantage of gaps in the field.
Morgan can also hit the ball hard in a more orthodox manner and ensure that the run-rate momentum, gained by the early order batsmen, continues at the right tempo.
On the bowling side, England have got to grips with the tactics and variations of speed and length that are needed to keep opposition batsmen thinking.
Yorkshireman Tim Bresnan is the best example of a ‘thinking’ Twenty20 bowler while Stuart Broad and Ryan Sidebottom have avoided the predictability that can harm more traditional bowlers in this format.
Crucially, the two slow bowlers, off-spinner Graeme Swann and slow left-armer Michael Yardy, have been on top of their game, applying a run-rate squeeze and picking up vital wickets in the middle of an innings.
Watching England train - with batsmen practising hitting sixes, fielders working on taking skiers and bowlers perfecting disguised slower balls, it is evident that England’s coaching staff have focused on the particular skills needed for Twenty20.
It is also evident, watching the intensity of those training sessions and the enthusiasm of the players, that Collingwood’s squad are buzzing with confidence, a mood always helped by wins.
Apart from when forced to replace Pietersen, when he flew home to be with his wife for the birth of their child, England have stuck with the same line-up throughout the tournament.
“We have obviously been very consistent in selection as the guys play more and more with each other they understand more what their role is during a game...having the same side has been a real positive for us,” said Collingwood.
England have never won an international tournament since the ICC began organising them for limited overs cricket in the 1970s and after all the progress made by England in Twenty20, second place would be hard to take.