Any ideas that England might be favourites to win the Champions Trophy on their own territory have been placed firmly in perspective by the performances against New Zealand over the weekend.
The Black Caps are never to be underestimated, and indeed are past winners of the competition as well as regulars in the later stages of the World Cup, but the manner in which they have outbatted, outbowled, outfielded, outrun and generally outmanoeuvred England over two one-day internationals will surely be giving Ashley Giles indigestible food for thought.
Giles is still feeling his way into the role of limited overs head coach allowed him by Andy Flower's concentration on England's Test cricket and Giles made a steady enough start last winter. But the games at Lord's and the Rose Bowl brought performances that were as bad as any England can have strung together successively in a long time and even this equable character will be feeling the pinch. The pre-tournament odds will not have shifted in their favour.
Mitigation for Giles and his team comes only in the fact that Kevin Pietersen – one of the great destructive batsmen one-day cricket has seen – has been missing, as have two of his three first-choice pace bowlers in Stuart Broad and Steve Finn. That is a lot of firepower to lose, as if the engine is only running on three of four cylinders and misfiring.
The trouble is that this series would have been regarded as an opportunity for fine tuning and instead has become an exercise in seeking to find combinations that work. Whether the injuries to the two bowlers – sore shins for Finn and a bruised knee for Broad – are sufficiently worrying to preclude them from the Champions Trophy, which begins in Cardiff on Thursday, remains to be seen. But whatever the imperative to try to win a first global 50 over-a-side competition, they will not be risked if there is the slightest question as to their fitness for the start of the Ashes on 10 July.
That England were installed as one of the favourites at all was predicated not so much on their position at or near the top of the ODI rankings, which can be rather volatile, but on their perceived strength in home conditions. The rule change allowing for a separate new ball to be used from each end, meaning that both would still be relatively hard at the end of the innings, was seen to be playing into the hands of England's swing bowlers, while the batsmen ought to be well versed in playing bowling that moves laterally in the air and off the pitch.
So far it appears that apart from the opening overs, the ball has not looped around as anticipated, while the hardness makes it fly off the bat more readily towards the end of an innings. Without the movement, the bowlers have been found lacking: short of pace, and devoid of sufficient skill or even nous to keep things under control. A coach cannot step on to the field and spoon-feed bowlers.
It may just be that the mentality of the bowlers has to change. There is no question that one-day cricket has evolved significantly in recent years, with a bewildering array of strokes on offer from batsmen where once they were considerably more predictable if no less destructive. The influence of T20 has been remarkable, and with fielding restrictions such as they are, totals and targets have increased accordingly. But as well as evolution, there has been a trend back to an older strategy of solid starts, and wickets in hand for a late charge.
In a curious way, bowlers might need to revert to a more fundamental method of bowling. With the advent of T20 in particular, bowlers have felt it necessary to try to anticipate a batsman's move, using intuition, experience, or plain guesswork to decide on an appropriate response. That way can lie confusion, so that in the end a bowler might disappear into a spaghetti of his own tactics. In effect, the variations themselves become the default.
Keeping it simple might be better. Length at the start, yorkers and the eye-line bouncer (such as that directed at Eoin Morgan on Friday) later on.
Techniques to counter yorkers have improved dramatically, with batsmen sitting deep in the crease able to get leverage, so that deliveries need to be precise. But ODI boundaries tend to be bigger, and field placings easier to set to a full length: no captain can set a 360-degree field. Then, within these parameters, comes a very selective use of variations. It may sound old-fashioned but Sri Lanka's Lasith Malinga, to take an extreme example of brilliance, has no problem with it.
To gain progress in the tournament, a nicely structured few weeks in which those eight teams who topped the rankings six months ago play in two divisions for the right to proceed to a semi-final, it may be that, now they are without Pietersen, England are better suited to lower-scoring matches. The last thing they need in this regard is good weather and belting pitches. England find themselves in the same group as Australia, whom they play in their opening fixture at Edgbaston on Saturday, New Zealand, and Sri Lanka. If they fail to reach the semi-finals – a distinct possibility – the single match against Sri Lanka, bizarrely, will be the only game they play in any format, over a 12-month period, that does not involve either New Zealand or Australia. Familiarity may not breed contempt, but that is just ridiculous.
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