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England the entertainers

Posted in ICC Cricket World Cup 2011

Thank heavens for England.

Obvious allegiances aside, we all owe Andrew Strauss and company a debt of gratitude for helping to deliver the first genuinely close contest of the World Cup.

Before I am bombarded by emails from ‘Angry of Amsterdam’, the Netherlands also deserve their share of the credit for pushing England so close in their opening competitive fixture.

The competition is now almost a week old yet games between evenly-matched sides have been as rare as dry armpits on the sub-continent.

Pulses were hardly rising in line with the temperature as the World Cup got under way with overwhelming victories for India, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Australia over the first three days.

Bangladesh, Kenya, Canada and Zimbabwe were the unfortunate victims of beatings as one-sided as an arm wrestle between a rugby-playing sixth-former and a scrawny first year.

Indeed, the closest we came to a shock was of the electrical kind - after Ricky Ponting's to-do with a rather unfortunate TV.

That is not to say there has been a paucity of entertainment since Saturday - the batting exploits of Virender Sehwag, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, and the acid tongue of Ray Price (have you ever seen a bowler sledge a batsman after one ball?) have seen to that - but winning margins of 87 runs, 10 wickets, 210 runs and 91 runs tell their own story.

Step up England, whose “shemozzle” of a fielding display, in the words of Strauss himself, helped the Netherlands amass 292 for six, the highest total made by an Associate nation and one which took England all but eight balls of their 50 overs to overhaul.

Andrew Strauss

Captain Andrew Strauss cannot bear to watch England's fielding display - but it helped make thrilling viewing for spectators

The fingernails of the fans watching Paul Collingwood and Ravi Bopara carry England over the line may now be somewhat worse for wear, but you will be hard pushed to find a cricket supporter who was not heartened by what he or she witnessed in Nagpur.

Aside from the fact that England demonstrated a continuing propensity to thrill and frighten in equal measure in the one-day arena - for further evidence, consider their narrow warm-up win over Canada just two days before they thumped Pakistan - the Netherlands’ spirited showing with bat, ball and in the field served as a graphic counter-argument to those who dismiss the Associate nations’ participation in this tournament as an irrelevance.

Admittedly, Kenya’s subsidence to Pakistan today - they were bowled out for a paltry 112, which at least represented an improvement on the 69 they mustered against New Zealand - suggested normal service has been resumed, but such results are surely to be expected in conditions to which, as history shows, it is notoriously difficult to get accustomed.

A largely polished England batting display, the credit for which has been inevitably overshadowed by the opprobrium poured on their “schoolboy” fielding (to quote Graeme Swann), therefore ensured that the underdogs are still waiting for their day.

Yapping at the ankles of the bigger nations, they may have managed the odd nip - in the case of Ryan ten Doeschate, even a healthy chunk of English flesh - but they are yet to land a fatal bite. Surely that won’t continue for long.

In that sense, England’s next assignment, against India in Bangalore on Sunday, represents some form of light relief.

Strauss points to the assertion that “we generally raise our game against the better sides” as one of the reasons to be optimistic, despite India’s ominously impressive start to the World Cup and their status as favourites to lift the trophy on home soil.

There are still four games between now and then, including heavyweight clashes between South Africa and West Indies, Australia and New Zealand, and Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

On the off-chance that they don’t deliver on the entertainment front, you will get short odds on India-England in front of 40,000 screaming locals failing to do the same.

Jonathan Trott & Wesley Barresi

Jonathan Trott is superbly stumped by Wesley Barresi as the Netherlands make the case for the Associates. Though they lost by six wickets, they played a full part in the World Cup's first tight finish