Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

Time may pass but the fundamental problem remains, writes Jonathan Wilson at Villa Park. On this ground in February 2001, Sven-Göran Eriksson oversaw his first game in charge of England, a 3-0 win over Spain in which the right-footed Nicky Barmby filled in as a makeshift left-sided midfielder. Four years later the left-sided issue remains unsolved. The blank scoreline is largely irrelevant, although the poverty of the game again raises questions about the purpose of international friendlies. This was dreadful, pointless football, for all Eriksson's assertion that "we played rather well".

What was important to the England manager was his latest attempt to hide the deficiency by abolishing the position. He has tried a midfield diamond, he has tried Wayne Rooney tucked behind a front two, and on Wednesday night he went for a 4-3-3, with Rooney on the left, and Shaun Wright-Phillips on the right. On the plus side, the shape seemed to suit David Beckham, who was bright throughout. The negatives, though, were far more apparent. Rooney wasn't involved enough on the left, and his forays infield in search of action left England unbalanced.

Wright-Phillips may well suit the role on the right but he was so racked by nerves that he looked as lightweight as his frame suggests he should be, and twice fluffed presentable chances created by swiftly-taken free-kicks. It was his error that handed Holland their only significant chance, Romeo Castelen catching him in possession and setting up Dirk Kuyt, who swept his shot against the inside of the post.

Debutants Andy Johnson and Stewart Downing, each given half an hour, hardly set the game alight. Downing showed the odd spark on the left but Johnson, bizarrely asked to play wide on the right rather than in his usual central role, was barely involved.

In other friendlies, two goals by Craig Bellamy gave Wales a 2-0 victory over Hungary; Andy O'Brien gave Ireland a deserved 1-0 win over a lacklustre Portugal; and an Olivier Occean goal brought Canada victory over Northern Ireland.

* Kevin Pietersen continued his remarkable start to international cricket with a brilliant unbeaten hundred but was outgunned by South Africa's emerging star Justin Kemp as England went down by seven runs at Buffalo Park. Pietersen rocketed the tourists to within a respectable distance of the South Africans with another astonishing assault, which was nevertheless put into context by Kemp's savagery.

Both sets of bowlers suffered in the rain-delayed day-nighter but it was England's profligacy with the ball that made Pietersen's knock futile. Pietersen joined captain Michael Vaughan at 117 for three in the 27th over, in pursuit of 312 for victory, which would have been the eighth-highest total to win a one-day international. The South African-born batsman, who averaged 114 in seven previous one-day international innings, was starved of the strike at crucial periods once past a half-century that took just 38 balls. The Hampshire man was dropped from the first ball of the final over, which resulted in the third run-out of the innings, that of Kabir Ali, and appeared set to miss out on his second century of the series. But Pietersen has made a habit of defying the odds and registered England's fastest one-day hundred from the final ball of the innings, when he pummelled a waist-high delivery from Andre Nel over the mid-wicket boundary.

South Africa's unassailable 3-1 lead was manufactured by Kemp with another phenomenal display of power, which included seven sixes and four fours. Kemp's clean hitting provided a breathtaking late surge. By the time he was yorked by Darren Gough, the first of three wickets in as many balls, Kemp had taken his strike rate in the seven-match series to 120. In contrast, his captain Graeme Smith failed to find the ropes at all in his second 50 of an undefeated 115 but his second hundred in three innings anchored the home side on a gloomy day on the coast.

* If England's teenage centre Mathew Tait did not know that a week in international sport is a long time, he should now, writes Huw Richards. Chosen for his debut in the 11-9 loss away to Wales in the RBS 6 Nations championship last Saturday, he was excluded yesterday from the 22-man squad for the game against France at Twickenham on Sunday. It would be human for Tait, when he rejoins his club Newcastle, to look across the changing room at hooker Andy Long - chosen once against Australia in 1997, taken off at half-time and never seen at that level again - and wonder if that will be his fate. A likelier example, though, is that set by another clubmate, Jonny Wilkinson, whose first England start was marked by a 76-0 defeat against Australia but who has not done too badly since. Tait, 19, did nothing wrong in Cardiff, but is to the need for a supplementary midfield playmaker. Olly Barkley, whose tactical kicking as a replacement looked at one stage to be winning the Wales match for England, takes his place. Head coach Andy Robinson has reassured Tait about his prospects but doubts remain over England's midfield strategy. Uncertainty and inconsistency, prompted admittedly by the loss of the Wilkinson-Tindall-Greenwood triangle that won the World Cup, pre-date the appointment of Robinson and backs coach Joe Lydon.

The choice of Harry Ellis, 22, over Matt Dawson, 32, at scrum-half is a significant shift in generations but there is an element of restoration in the pack - back-rowers Martin Corry and Lewis Moody would have started ahead of Andy Hazell and Chris Jones in Cardiff if they had been fit, while Julian White's injury allows Phil Vickery back at tighthead prop.

England will face French flanker Serge Betsen after the Biarritz player was cleared by a disciplinary committee to play in Sunday's game. Betsen was cleared over an incident during his club's Heineken Cup game against Wasps in which centre Stuart Abbott broke a leg. England: Robinson (c); Cueto, Noon, Barkley, Lewsey; Hodgson, Ellis; Rowntree, Thompson, Vickery; Kay, Grewcock; Moody, Corry, Worsley.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article