Commentary

Can England satisfy its suffering fans?

Updated: February 23, 2011, 11:25 PM ET
By Ravi Ubha | ESPN.com

For a nation that craves sporting success, England hasn't had much, at least not in team sports. Well, not lately, anyway.

Only once has England won soccer's World Cup, and that was when Paul, John, Ringo and George ruled the world in 1966. The Three Lions flopped last summer in South Africa, outclassed by bitter rival Germany in the second round. Their long-suffering fans, among the most passionate of the Beautiful Game, endured more misery.

It's hardly better in rugby. England has triumphed just the once in a World Cup, edging Australia in an extra-time thriller Down Under eight years ago.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Strauss
Matthew Lewis/Getty ImagesAndrew Strauss and England are fully aware of what a cricket championship would mean to an entire nation.

Great Britain's last Davis Cup tennis title came during the Great Depression. And as for the Slams, there's no end in sight to that 70-plus year drought, even with Andy Murray on offer.

In cricket, the chase continues.

England has come close to glory at the World Cup, landing in three finals but unable to overcome Viv Richards' West Indies at hallowed Lord's in 1979, Allan Border's Australia in 1987 and Imran Khan's Pakistan in 1992.

"I find it unbelievable that we've not done well in one-day cricket since then," said former England seam bowler Phil DeFreitas, who competed in the 1987 and 1992 finals. "If England can win it this year, then they would have achieved a lot. They can say they're a very special team."

There's ample reason to be hopeful in this year's World Cup, which began for England with a six-wicket win over the Netherlands in Nagpur, India, on Tuesday.

The most coveted Test series for any English cricketer is the Ashes, and the visitors battered an uncharacteristically unsettled Australia 3-1 to retain the urn, whose prestige is inversely proportional to its diminutive size.

The momentum of winning a first Ashes series in Australia in 24 years could linger, even though the format differs.

"It gives them belief and confidence," said ex-England batsman Mark Ramprakash, one of the most accomplished players in county cricket history. "It's a massive hurdle to beat Australia."

Andrew Strauss captained the side with aplomb; fellow opener Alastair Cook was almost unstoppable, averaging 128 runs; and Ian Bell sizzled in the middle of the order. Kevin Pietersen, meanwhile, was his usual self: explosive with highlight-reel shots that were tempered at times by poor decision-making. Pacer James Anderson was the pick of the bowlers, overshadowing veteran Graeme Swann, the top-ranked Test spinner in the world.

Overseeing operations was Zimbabwean coach Andy Flower, who excelled in preparation and tactics. Gone was the divisiveness that pervaded under Duncan Fletcher on England's previous, disastrous tour of Australia in 2006-2007. Then, England lost 5-0.

"They're being incredibly well managed," Ramprakash said. "Andy Flower knows the modern game; he was good improvising himself as a batsman; and he had a successful record in Asia. Andrew is very comfortable captaining the side. They do have that high of winning the Ashes, but I do think they have a well-balanced unit, also."

More optimism stems from England's performance at cricket's last major international tournament, the World Twenty20 in the West Indies in 2010. England won the third edition by defeating the Aussies in the final.

Although the watered-down version of one-day cricket isn't to everyone's liking, it did mark success in the limited overs configuration.

"The fact they won it will give them a lot of confidence in the one-day format," said Jacques Rudolph, a former batsman for South Africa who spent three years with England's Yorkshire in county cricket. "I think they have all the firepower. It's just, on the day, if they can get it together as a team."

However, it's not all uplifting for England, which entered the World Cup as sixth favorite, according to the English bookies, behind India, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Australia and Pakistan.

After the emphatic Ashes victory, the squad subsequently was pummeled 6-1 in the one-day series, giving Australia, gunning for a fourth straight world title, respite. Optimists argued that England suffered a letdown with the hard work already done; the likes of Strauss, Pietersen, Bell, Jonathan Trott, Paul Collingwood and Matt Prior featured in both series.

Fatigue is a concern. The core of the team spent three months on the road, getting only a few days to recover in England before jetting off again to Asia.

"To have the tour ending just before the World Cup starts doesn't make a lot of sense to me," Flower said.

Given the extended sojourn, injuries were bound to surface -- and they did, notably to Swann and exciting Eoin Morgan. Swann, whose style is conducive to Asia's slower pitches, missed six of the seven one-dayers thanks to knee and back complaints. Further, he was in court in England last week facing a charge of drunken driving but ultimately was found not guilty.

Morgan, who has risen to prominence as a middle-order batsman in the past year and a half, was sidelined with a broken finger. Morgan, born in Ireland, has averaged slightly fewer than 40 runs in his blossoming one-day career. Calls for Cook, the fifth-ranked Test batsman, to be inserted into the one-day team were ignored. Finding the right opener to partner Strauss is another headache, with Pietersen doing the job -- and well -- against the Dutch.

In a warm-up game last week, England stuttered past Canada before laboring against the Netherlands, another minnow. The batting was fine; bowling and fielding wasn't. A similar display and the English figure to get crushed by India on Sunday.

Recent World Cup history hasn't been kind to England, either. Elimination in the Super Eights was an embarrassment in 2007, as was the conduct of vice captain Andrew Flintoff, who had to be rescued at sea after getting drunk.

"It didn't go to plan," Bell said. "It was a little bit like going and playing in Australia and losing 5-0 -- it was nice to go back and put that right. This is another opportunity for the guys who played in the last World Cup to do that same thing again."

If England is the last team standing April 2 in Mumbai and the drought ends, there might be a few more getting tipsy while the champagne flows.

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.