| A dejected Nasser Hussain in Port Elizabeth Sunday
England left home for Australia 137 days ago. It has been a long and at times painful odyssey, never more so than Sunday in Port Elizabeth. By Sunday night, even Michael Palin (a travel correspondent) might have had a gutful.
When the team returned to their soulless Holiday Inn, supporters filled the lobby and applauded them. This was a remarkable reaction to defeat and reflected the emotion which gave the closest of games its heartbeat. Oddly, the result had not affected English hopes of a place in the Super Six stage of the tournament. It was more that David had all but done a job on Goliath.
Put brutally, England have forgotten how to beat Australia in a one-day match. It has been more than four years, after all. Knowing how to win is to play without fear or doubt. It is making correct, rational decisions when the brain plays tricks on itself. It is body and mind sticking together rather than floating apart and into some surreal disconnected world.
Nasser Hussain’s boys are braver than they are given credit for. The team would have beaten anyone else they had reduced to 114 for seven Sunday, but not Australia. That is the psychological high ground, and these devoted, uncomplaining fans knew it had almost been exorcised.
If he had his time again, Hussain would summon Andrew Caddick to bowl the penultimate over, not the rookie James Anderson. They had incomparable figures — Caddick four for 35 in his nine overs, Anderson none for plenty in his. But Hussain went on a hunch that does not reflect well on Caddick and might have done long-term damage to Anderson, who was smashed out of the park.
The captain said it was a judgment call, yet Anderson has been off colour since his match-winning performance against Pakistan in Cape Town. It just made no sense.
Now England are in the hands of Pakistan, which has some irony to it. If the planet’s most mercurial band of cricketers should overcome Zimbabwe Tuesday in a match that is not utterly one-sided, England will remain in the tournament by dint of their superior run-rate. If Zimbabwe win, it is curtains. The decision not to play in Harare will have haunted them to the end.
Sunday’s was a strange match played on an interesting if not especially good pitch, which had begun by looking a beauty when Marcus Trescothick and Nick Knight were batting freely and with spirit. This was Trescothick’s best effort since he has been in South Africa and there were signs of the slayer in him until Glenn McGrath first located the uneven bounce and the edge of the big fellow’s broad-seeming bat.
For once, however, it was not McGrath who started England’s collapse, nor a Lee or Gillespie or Warne. This time it was Andy Bichel, the unsung player from Brisbane, who has the happy knack of picking up wickets when the opposition least want to lose them. Knight fell to a ball which climbed on him and Hussain and Michael Vaughan to little gems which darted away off the seam. Bichel had come on to bowl with the English openers rollicking along at 6.5 an over. Twenty-two balls later he had knocked the top four over and reduced the rate by a point.
Class, sheer class. And guts.
This is a reason for Australia’s strength, their depth. Bichel, who finished with seven for 20, does not make it into the best team. He played because Jason Gillespie has a niggling injury. Lucky he did, for Gillespie could never have made the cool 40-odd with the bat that his replacement managed when the game was at its most intense. Gary Sobers would have delighted in this performance, for heaven’s sake, never mind Andy Bichel. Now the Australian selectors have a headache awaiting them. Ruthless as they are, can he be left out'
What Hussain would give for such riches. He is, at least, getting something back from Andrew Flintoff and can still bank on all there is from Alec Stewart. Without them we would not have had a game. Against their flamboyant natures, these two contrasting characters set about rebuilding Bichel’s destruction inch by inch, single by single as the pitch became slower and the ball softer. Only when they dared adventure did they perish and by then a to defend had been accumulated.
After Durban the other night, this was Flintoff’s second consecutive innings of understanding the moment and applying himself to it admirably. It bodes well. Later he bowled with brimstone and brains at Australian batsmen who previously thought him easy to unsettle. At the same time, Stewart kept wicket as if he had springs in his heels.
Their commitment, and the stomach for the fight around them, was only an ounce short of the quality needed to force victory against a formidable, more gifted opponent. In four of the last five one-day matches between the teams, England have come close to winning. Indeed, three times really they should have done so.
There is something to work on, not to grumble about. If the World Cup is over, so be it.