Flower positive over late reshuffle
England are confident they have hit on the right opening partnership for the World Cup - in the nick of time, and after years of trial and error.
Kevin Pietersen’s promotion to join his captain Andrew Strauss at the top of the order is a bold call but one team director Andy Flower expects to fit the bill in the sub-continent.
England’s 21st one-day international opening pair since the start of the last World Cup have so far faced the new ball twice together, in warm-up victories over Canada and Pakistan in Bangladesh.
Pietersen, for so long a fixture at number four, has lasted longer than his captain both times - making 24 and then top-scoring with 66, to Strauss’ two single-figure scores.
They will open for the first time in a meaningful game when England start their World Cup campaign in earnest against the Netherlands in Nagpur on Tuesday.
Flower does not mind admitting previous pairings have not worked consistently, but believes England’s new order will play to the strengths of not just Pietersen but wicketkeeper-batsman Matt Prior - a recent incumbent at the top, who has dropped to number six.
“We’ve had a number of opening combinations in the recent past, but we believe in these conditions Pietersen opening with Strauss will give us the best chance of winning,” he said.
Flower acknowledges the late change of plan - no one had an inkling Pietersen was due for promotion until his name appeared at number two on the scorecard against Canada four days ago - is unusual at the start of such an important tournament.
“It’s not perfect, but our one-day international batting order is not as settled as it is in Test cricket - and that’s because our opening combinations have not been overly successful.”
Prior’s adaptability is another reason the coach thinks England have hit on a winner.
“Part of the reason we’ve made that change is because of his skill against spin,” Flower said of Prior, who made more than 100 runs in his two warm-up innings.
“He will be quite an important factor in the middle to later overs of the game. He plays spin well and reverse-swing well, so it was nice to see him get off to a good start.”
The hope appears to be that Pietersen’s new role will benefit him as well as the team. The 30-year-old still averages more than 40 in ODIs yet has managed only one half-century in his last 23 innings in the middle order.
Flower has faith that the promotion will be significant fresh motivation for one of England’s most talented batsmen - and he is sure Pietersen will be up to the task.
“That would be a nice result if he’s reinvigorated by the challenge ahead of him,” he said. “It’s a serious challenge, because opening the batting in this form of the game in the sub-continent carries a lot of responsibility.
“But he’s without doubt good enough to take that responsibility on and thrive, and I’m looking forward to watching how he accepts that challenge.”
England’s new opening pair are far from the only point of tactical discussion as they bid to win this competition for the first time.
Number one spinner Graeme Swann will join the squad tomorrow, having stayed in England for the birth of his first child.
It is not yet clear whether he will come straight into the team against the Dutch, if England will instead stick with Mike Yardy or - as befits sub-continental conditions - will pick two spinners.
“That will be one of the toughest questions to ask, and we’ll have to judge the conditions,” said Flower. “I still think there are some tricky decisions to be made on the balance of the bowling attack, but we’ve got a pretty clear idea of what we want.”
One position in no doubt is that of Stuart Broad to take the new ball.
He returned from two months out with an abdominal tear to take five wickets in each of the warm-up matches and is looking the lynchpin of a pace attack collectively returned to fitness following a spate of other more minor injuries.
“Stuart Broad’s been outstanding and he’s been champing at the bit to get back into international cricket,” Flower added.
“He’s been out for two months, so it’s nice to see him hit his straps right away. Certainly he’s a very important part of any success we’ll have out here.”
As for those first World Cup opponents, few - certainly not Flower - will need any reminding that the Netherlands cannot be taken lightly, following their shock victory over England at Lord’s in their last meeting at the start of the 2009 ICC World Twenty20.
“It was actually a great match. They deserved to win and they played really good cricket,” said Flower. Here in Nagpur, over 100 overs, we intend to beat them and start our World Cup campaign off well.”