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The Electronic Telegraph England v Sri Lanka, Group A
Electronic Telegraph - 14 May 1999

England off to a flier

Michael Henderson

The opening day of the World Cup could not have run more smoothly for Alec Stewart. The England captain won a toss that went halfway towards winning the game, held three catches as Sri Lanka were bowled out for 204, and then rediscovered some of the batting form he has mislaid recently with an innings of 88. Had he been granted three wishes beforehand, he could hardly have been rewarded more fully.

By the time Stewart and Graeme Hick were batting England to victory with a second-wicket stand of 125, ended when Stewart was given out caught behind in circumstances that permitted an element of doubt, the showers of the morning and early afternoon had given way to glorious sunshine. It was a reminder, not that the World Cup holders needed one, that they had been dealt an unplayable hand.

The last time they met England in the World Cup, at Faisalabad three years ago, they won a one-sided game with nine overs to spare. Yesterday, despite the presence of no fewer than nine men who were playing that day, they were unable to prevent England winning almost as easily. When Hick drove his second six to complete the game there were 3.1 overs unused.

It was not a dazzling performance by England, and the celebrations were far from raucous. For all the thoroughness of their cricket, it bore the stamp of the English pro, and in these early summer days, that will often suffice. Once they have been given credit for performing a task with diligence, it should be noted that Sri Lanka resembled a team that has seen better days. There was not much fight in them.

How vital it was to win that toss. On an overcast morning, and with the pitch lubricating under heavy covers after three days of intermittent rain, it was the day of all days for an early bowl. England did not, in fact, start impressively. Ian Austin, offered the new ball ahead of Alan Mullally, bowled five wides in his first three overs, and Sri Lanka had made 42 before Roshan Mahanama made a gift of his wicket.

But once Mullally had taken the first of his four wickets, after replacing Darren Gough at the Pavilion End, England never lost control of a match that only became a meaningful contest when Arjuna Ranatunga and Romesh Kaluwitharana were adding 84 for the sixth wicket. Little 'Kalu', the titch of a wicketkeeper, played the most pleasing strokes of the day. Perhaps he will now be restored to his place at the top of the order.

England also have an opening problem to resolve. Stewart's first decision, in concert with David Lloyd, the coach, and David Graveney, the manager, had been taken the previous evening. The selectors stood down Nick Knight as the captain's opening partner, and promoted Nasser Hussain. In other words, they did what they said they would not do earlier in the week.

Hussain neither justified the decision, nor did he let the team down. He held a sharp low catch in the gully when Ranatunga slashed hard at Mark Ealham, and he contributed 14 to a partnership of 50 before he charged at Muttiah Muralitharan in the finger spinner's second over, and presented Kalu with a stumping.

As he watched from the dressing-room balcony, Knight could have been excused for thinking, ``I might have done that''. Then, when he saw Stewart batting serenely in early evening against bowling that lacked menace, with the sting drawn from the game, he might have added: ``Those are my runs the skipper's taking.''

It has been a hard couple of days for the Warwickshire left-hander. For two years he has been an important member of the one-day team and suddenly he finds himself dropped in favour of a man who was not included in the original party, and whose form in this type of cricket is indifferent.

Knight will find it hard to regain his place: how can he regain his form when he is not playing cricket? Against that it should be said that, if he does not get his place back, it will be because England are playing well without him. Now that Hussain is deemed worthy of a place it makes little sense not to persist with him. The selectors have got themselves into a pickle over this, and they may come to regret their tinkering.

But this was not a day for many regrets. Mullally bowled splendidly, troubling the batsmen with bounce and movement off the pitch, and achieving a fair degree of pace. He received notable assistance from Austin, once he found a suitable line, and Ealham. Even if it was the sort of pitch they would like to carry around with them, like a Persian carpet, they still had to put the ball in the places where it would do the greatest damage.

The bowlers were supported by some excellent close catching. Graham Thorpe matched his captain's three catches, two of them at first slip, and Hick, standing one place wider, held a couple. Until Gough slanted in a yorker to end the innings every wicket had fallen to a catch and only one, by Thorpe at midwicket, was in front of the bat.

Stewart and Hussain got England off to a sound start after the second, and longest of the rain breaks. No sooner had 'Murali' come on, though, than Hussain charged at him like a mad-eyed Prussian cavalryman, and he was comprehensively unhorsed. It was a soft dismissal, out of keeping with the rest of England's play.

Hick, who has so much to play for in this competition, looked in good fettle. There will be sterner challenges in the weeks to come, but he has it in him to write his name across the lawns of an English summer.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
Editorial comments can be sent to The Electronic Telegraph at et@telegraph.co.uk