Time for reality check for England U19’s against India

Wednesday 20th January 2010

By Charles Randall at Christchurch
WHEN England Under-19 arrived in New Zealand for the junior world cup David Payne and his captain Azeem Rafiq both had the same shirt number, which suggested, if nothing else, that the Gloucestershire fast bowler had early status within the camp.

Rafiq quickly volunteered to switch to 99 — a number with a certain ring to it — and Payne stayed with No 7, which he had always associated with David Beckham, his most admired footballer. But the rangy left-armer rise in status had nothing to do with shirts; his place was earned the hard way on the field before the Under-19 World Cup tournament unfolded in Christchurch.

If England defeat India at Lincoln University tomorrow in their final Group A match they will play West Indies in the quarter-finals at Rangiora, a town north of Christchurch. If they lose, their opponents will be Pakistan on television at Lincoln, with both matches taking place on Saturday.

The England side is likely to show at least one change with the return of Michael Bates behind the stumps after a dose of flu that forced him to miss the Afghanistan match. His deputy Jos Buttler, of Somerset, reverts to specialist batsman, but the return of Bates and Adam Ball’s (pictured)focused bowling form has caused a selection headache. The rusty seamers of James Vince proved to be a weak link to follow a thrusting new-ball attack against Hong Kong, and India would be just the team to cash in.

Payne and his new-ball partner Nathan Buck, of Leicestershire, have formed a left-right new-ball combination that is very important, perhaps critical to success. Ben Stokes has impressed as the first change, but the selectors have had to look carefully at the back-up. Ball has put himself in the frame after his impressive response to pressure against Afghanistan. He is now free of school worries after taking three AS Levels — biology, maths and business studies — alone in a room at Canterbury University last week.

With a natural ease Payne and Buck talk in terms of ’we’ like a married couple, and this bond should help them carry a burden of expectation. "We’ve built an understanding how the other bowls," Payne said. "It’s come together in the world cup and we’re showing how we can work as a partnership. We know what we want from each other and how to do it. We talk to each a lot about what the ball is doing before the game and what ends we should have. We have a good discussion, so it’s never one person in control."

Payne was hampered by a sore hip during the England Under-19 tour of Bangladesh last October, and he only returned to action at the end of the trip to help England to two one-day victories when they had gone five-nil down.

The selectors reckoned this was more than coincidence, and the Dorset boy retained the new ball with Buck, the senior bowler. In a practice match in Wellington Payne dismissed the brilliant New Zealand opener Jesse Ryder — a leading edge well caught by Gloucestershire colleague Chris Dent at backward point — and took three good wickets. Then in the opening group match he took three wickets in four balls to zap Hong Kong’s dangerous middle order recovery. His impact meant that Matthew Dunn, of Surrey, had to stay in reserve.

Payne is less powerful than his room-mate Buck, a bowler with proven ability to cause early damage as a hit-the-deck seamer, but he has a definite whip in his delivery and can swing the ball at pace. "I’ve been bowling against the wind, but sometimes that can help my swing," Payne said. "I am not as strong as Bucky and don’t have so much pace behind me, but I tend to swing the ball more into the wind."

Before departure to New Zealand, the ECB coaches Kevin Shine and Richard Johnson worked with the bowlers, discussing match situations and the fields that could be set. "That gave us a good mindset on how we might play out here," Payne said, again effortlessly using the ’we’ word. "We have worked on plans and been able to say to the captain what field placing we want and how we want to bowl. Everyone is backing their skills, and the team has done really well at the moment."

England have played relatively weak countries so far, Hong Kong and Afghanistan, so India will provide the first real test. In the past early easy victories have been followed up by weak performances when the pressure mounts. In 2002, here in Christchurch, England beat two minnows before losing to Pakistan, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia in a super group system that has since been discontinued — which at least spares teams on the slide unnecessary humiliation.

In 2008, in Malaysia, England nipped out Ireland and Bermuda for 10-wicket victories, but lost to Bangladesh and then India in a feeble quarter-final display. This pattern is depressingly familiar, and a ’monkey’ that Payne and Buck are capable of removing.

In common with most other countries, the direction taken by the England management of the two coaches Mark Robinson and Carl Hopkinson, team manager John Abrahams and selector James Whitaker has been towards winning rather than ensuring as many players as feasible see action.

This policy is nevertheless debatable as England have won both games by nine wickets, leaving Jos Buttler, Ateeq Javid and all-rounder Ben Stokes — all upper order batsmen — without exposure to pressure at the crease. The seeds of past disasters have been sown this way.

"We’ve talked about it," conceded Robinson, "and in the same way we could have won the toss and batted, which would guarantee time at the crease, but I think at this stage winning, and winning well, is what you hope will create a good atmosphere in the squad.

"It’s dangerous sometimes when you start to mess around with the game plan. Jos has had two digs in the warm-ups. Chris Dent was the one we wanted to go on and get a good score — which he did against Afghanistan, so that was really pleasing."

The left-hander Dent has adopted the role of fixer to give early momentum, a strategy that has worked well for South Africa and New Zealand particularly. Opener Dominic Hendricks hit 94 in 99 balls as South Africa overtook Australia by two wickets with one ball left in a splendid match at Queenstown today.

For batsmen, deprivation of time at the crease can be an occupational hazard — Jack Manuel, for example, has been omitted completely after two warm-up match failures, no doubt much to the disappointment of his parents, who made the journey from Worcestershire.

Robinson admitted that there was nothing to beat time in the middle. "What my assistant Carl and I have done is to put the players under pressure from the moment we met up with them at Loughborough," he said. "All the practice we’ve done with them is to try and put them under pressure to try and get them used to that extra intensity and aggression, but nothing really prepares you like playing in a match. It will be a good examination of their character how they do cope with pressure."

Batsmen have to be aware of rotating strike, absorbing sticky periods and attacking without ignoring vigilance. The bowlers have to know how to cope with batsmen "taking punts" at them, especially from the major nations. Pakistan headed Group D impressively at Palmerston North, inspired by the tournament’s most prolific batsman so far, Muhammad Babar Azam. The opener hit 91 to subdue much-fancied Bangladesh at Palmerston North today, bringing his tournament aggregate to 260 runs in three innings in the ’group of death’.

England have lost all four previous World Cup matches against India, in each case by heavy margins. But this time the dull cool ’English’ weather — the icy wind has gone — could be a factor in favour of Buck and Payne

Robinson likened conditions to playing 50-over cricket up north in England in April. "You have to scrap really hard up front to get yourself established in the game. It’s a case of the boys having to adjust a little bit early because the wicket’s seaming around. Likewise it’s important for our seam attack to make right inroads into the opposition.

"Potentially it gives us an advantage over Asian sides like India, but ideally you want to play one-day games on good wickets. The whole point and nature of the tournament is meant to be for the best bowlers, with their disciplines and their superior skills, to come out on top, as opposed to seamers just whacking it on a length and letting the wicket do the work.

"The whole goal is to produce future first class cricketers or even England cricketers. The wickets we’re finding here at the moment won’t be anything like at the next level. We’re hoping for some sunshine which will dry out the pitches so that we get good surfaces so that superior skills will come out on top."

So it is hardly surprising that Dent’s 19th birthday celebration today has been postponed until after the India match