WHEN the schedule for the Cricket World Cup’s group stage was announced, there was always a risk that the supposed ‘glamour game’ staged at Durham’s Emirates Riverside would turn out to be a dead rubber. Instead, tomorrow’s match between England and New Zealand is the biggest sporting event of the year so far.

Win, and England will head into a guaranteed semi-final spot buoyed by back-to-back victories over two of the sides likely to accompany them in the last four. Lose, and while they could still scramble into the semi-finals if Pakistan’s final group game with Bangladesh goes their way on Friday, their hopes of claiming a maiden World Cup title on home soil will be hanging by the slightest of threads.

Will Eoin Morgan’s side do it? We’ll know by tomorrow night. But on the evidence of their performances in the tournament so far, it would definitely help if they won the toss.

The West Indies opted to bowl first against Sri Lanka on Monday, and if there is any cloud cover hanging over Chester-le-Street this morning, there would ordinarily be a temptation to try to take advantage of the more opportune bowling conditions. In England’s case, though, chasing has unexpectedly proved to be a problem.

The one-day side’s success over the last couple of years has been built on a confidence that any target is achievable, but the last couple of weeks appear to have blown that assertion out of the water.

England’s attempt to chase down 233 against Sri Lanka at Headingley was lamentable, and the inability to pace what should have been a routine innings appears to have knocked confidence.

The top order was strangely cowed in their next game, which resulted in a comprehensive 64-run defeat to Australia as England once again failed to get close to what should have been an achievable total.

Normal service was resumed against India, but crucially England were batting first and able to establish a position of ascendancy from the opening powerplay. How will they react this afternoon if they are heading in second to try to overhaul a New Zealand total of 300-or-more?

That kind of score should be achievable if today’s wicket is anything like the strip that staged Monday’s game, which saw both teams score more than 300. Monday’s surface was typical of midsummer at Riverside – not quite quick enough to offer much to the pace bowlers, not really turning sufficiently to make the spinners a threat – and therefore batsmen were on top. With the forecast set fair, the same should be true today.

That should play into England’s hands, and while much has been made of their recent record batting second, perhaps it was personnel that was the problem against Sri Lanka and Australia rather than anything to do with the toss.

The importance of Jason Roy cannot be overestimated, and it was far from coincidental that England rediscovered their batting panache with their number one white-ball opener back in the side.

James Vince’s limitations on the international stage have been exposed repeatedly now, and Roy’s absence tilted England’s batting set-up too far away from the explosive, devil-may-care style that has made them so effective over the last couple of years.

Roy can get the opposition on the back foot from the very first over, and crucially, his presence also relieves some of the pressure from Jonny Bairstow. Feeling the need to force things, Bairstow was dismissed for a duck at Headingley. With Roy back last weekend, he scored 111. Fortunately, it looks as though Roy’s injured hamstrings are holding up.

England made another sensible selection decision against India, replacing the out-of-form Moeen Ali with Liam Plunkett. Plunkett took 3-55 on Sunday, snaffling the prize wicket of Virat Kohli in the process, and while he might not have the profile of some of his more celebrated team-mates, the Teessider has regularly proved an important cog in the England wheel.

He takes wickets in the crucial middle overs, and having spent a big chunk of his career playing for Durham, should know all the vagaries of the Riverside pitch. It would be no surprise at all to see him play a major hand today.

The problem is that New Zealand have match-winners of their own, not least Kane Williamson, formerly of Yorkshire, and Trent Boult, whose nibbling seamers should be ideally suited to Chester-le-Street.

England will have to be mindful of the Black Caps’ threat, but having come so far through playing on the front foot, this is not a time to be timid. A place in the World Cup semi-finals is there for the taking. We are fortunate their fate will be decided in the North-East.


AFTER ten hugely eventful seasons, Lee Cattermole has left Sunderland. In my decade-and-a-half of covering North-East football, few players have divided opinion as starkly as the Teessider. In time though, it is to be hoped he is remembered as a Wearside great.

While some accuse Cattermole of being part of a ‘rotten core’ that contributed to Sunderland’s slide down the divisions, my experience of the midfielder was always of a passionate, committed and surprisingly articulate North-Easterner who intrinsically understood what the Stadium of Light support wanted. He felt at home on Wearside, and was badly hurt by the experience of suffering back-to-back relegations.

He could also play a bit too, thundering into tackles to set the tone of a game – most memorably in a succession of Tyne-Wear derbies – and constantly cajoling and encouraging his team-mates to try to elicit more from them. While others might have hidden away when Sunderland were struggling, Cattermole stuck out his chest, hitched up his shorts and tried to lead from the front.

It is probably the right time for him to move on – both personally in terms of a new challenge and, from a Sunderland perspective, in terms of reducing the wage bill. Make no mistake though, the Black Cats have lost something significant now he is longer part of the squad.


AARON Wan-Bissaka joined Manchester United at the weekend in a deal that could eventually be worth £50m. £50m for Wan-Bissaka? If that’s the going rate, just imagine what Two Bissakas would cost…