In the immediate aftermath of England’s defeat by New Zealand, Eoin Morgan admitted that in their preparations they had factored in the possibility that they would lose each of their matches against Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka in the knowledge that they still ought to qualify for the knockout stages, when it becomes more of a free for all.
He may have just been totally frank about how he saw his team’s chances but in any case it has been mission accomplished, in spades, to the tune of 111 runs, eight wickets and nine wickets. Implicit in his remark, though, was an assumption that the other three of England’s group matches would present no problem.
Yet here we are, fretting whether the side that only a few years ago were ranked No1 in the world in this format can beat a Bangladesh side who have just overhauled a competitive Scotland total with ease, and an Afghanistan side who are delighting everyone and will play with fervour and abandon. Lose to either and they deserve to go home, preferably arriving under cover of darkness.
It is a misattributed dictum that says a definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome, but it is worth noting that England have fielded the same 11 players in all four matches. While some of that may be down to you-got-us-into-this-mess-you-get-us-out, it is inconceivable they could face the utter ridicule of losing to Bangladesh with the same bunch.
They are (no sniggering at the back) not that daft. There will be changes, in batting and bowling, the likeliest being that Alex Hales will bat at No3 instead of Gary Ballance, who has looked desperately out of touch, whatever his promise; that Chris Jordan could replace Steven Finn, who having bowled excellently against Scotland, slipped down the greasy pole again against Sri Lanka; and James Tredwell may come in for Stuart Broad, who took the wickets of David Warner and Shane Watson with successive deliveries in the first match and has not looked like taking another one since.
On this, though, England may argue that Bangladesh would be more comfortable against Tredwell than pace, despite his obvious skill, and that the shorter boundaries square of the wicket at the Adelaide Oval would be a factor in this.
All this is tinkering, though, for England’s World Cup malaise has deeper roots than picking a squad or a team. It is an uncomfortable truth that when it comes to the World Cup England have often been bully boys, taking it out on the small fry while having their lights punched out by the big boys. And it is a further truth that the format of this World Cup allows them to do this and get away with it.
Having lost those three games they face the prospect of meeting India in a quarter-final at the MCG (an opponent they would prefer over the other candidate, South Africa, given the nature of the venue), providing they add wins in Adelaide and Sydney to that over Scotland. Rather than march boldly through the front door they can sneak in at the patio windows. If nothing else it is unseemly.
There are some bare facts which illustrate this propensity. In the past seven World Cups England have won 23 of 44 matches, a roll of honour that includes UAE, Netherlands twice, Kenya twice, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Canada, Ireland, Bangladesh and that match against Scotland. It also includes three wins against West Indies and we know how the wind blows hot and cold through that side. To put it another way, it means they have beaten the power sides of the World Cup nine times. Ever since 1979, when they thought that two pinch-blockers at the top of the order was the way to beat West Indies in the final (funnily enough, it didn’t catch on), England have tended to play catch-up with the rest of the world, but always a step or two behind, rather like the Two Ronnies’ Mastermind sketch where the chosen subject is always to answer the previous question. It is rumoured some of their plans have been deciphered on the Rosetta Stone.
For this competition they have actually not been quite so antediluvian. They have some aggression up front with the bat, some power lower down, and some credible seamers: that is a lot of somes. But they can only go so far with the resource there is.
There are no bowlers of extreme pace, nor a left-armer of international quality. They do not have a left-arm spinner who could fill a role: Samit Patel would be good in subcontinental conditions but surely not here in Australia and New Zealand, while Adil Rashid’s leg spin, almost certain to be seen in West Indies next month, would be a gamble against the world’s best players.
England would love a battery of all-rounders but the only one of credibility they chose not to bring because of a dismal summer: the omission of Ben Stokes, the best batsman in Australia during the last Ashes, was a selectorial miscalculation. Sometimes you have to make do with what you have.
It goes deeper still, however, into a cultural difference when it comes to one-day cricket, something that goes way back and has scarcely changed.
Maybe two decades ago, Bob Willis and his brother founded the England Cricket Club and there was a grand inaugural dinner at the Cafe Royal. It was noticeable, though, that what was meant was the England Test Cricket Club, for there was no recognition of those who had played only ODIs, the implication being that they were not good enough for Tests.
When Morgan said he had not given up hope of playing Tests again, he was inadvertently reinforcing this England regard of the hierarchical nature of the formats. In fact, the reverse could apply: good enough for Tests but not good enough for one-day cricket. So for England to progress, they need a seismic shift in understanding right through the system, where a player such as Morgan can say without being belittled that no, he has no interest in Test matches but would like to be the best one-day batsman England have ever possessed.
That seems to me to be a perfectly sound ambition and one that other players could well adopt. Instead, Morgan, Hales and Tredwell are pretty much the only one-day specialists in the squad so the problem England face now is one of identifying players who fit the above template and how then to ensure they get the necessary experience in the four years before the next tournament in England. To an extent this squad is not short of experience: Jimmy Anderson, Ian Bell, Broad, Morgan and Ravi Bopara all have more than 100 games; Joe Root, Jos Buttler and Finn more than 50, the level at which the great Australian batsman Dean Jones reckons you can trust someone to win matches rather than hope they will. But this is small beer.
Paul Collingwood is England’s most capped one-day player with 197 but there are 67 men who have played more than 200. Andy Flower had played 213 for Zimbabwe before he became England head coach.
Of those five England players with 100 games, only Morgan, Broad and perhaps Bell will be around in 2019, so it is imperative that those such as Moeen Ali, Ballance, James Taylor, Chris Woakes, Jordan, Stokes, Hales, Jason Roy, James Vince, Sam Billings and whoever else play as much as possible.
But again, there needs to be a shift in attitude. Here it is instructive to take the case of Brendon McCullum, not entirely at random. He has played 244 ODIs for New Zealand. After a hundred of these he averaged 21.67, had a highest score of 56 not out and a strike rate of 79. Now he averages 30.74, has a strike rate of 93 and is one of the most incendiary batsmen the short forms have seen. It took time to learn.
In the four years between the last World Cup and this, England played 82 ODIs, the same as Australia, 13 more than South Africa and 20 more than New Zealand. Against that the two finalists last time, India and Sri Lanka, have played 99 and 118 matches respectively. So the amount of cricket seems not to be the issue, with England somewhere in the middle.
But in that time, England used 34 players, which is way too many, so that only Morgan, Alastair Cook, Bell, Morgan, Root, Bopara and Buttler managed more than 50 of them, with Cook and Bopara no longer in the side.
If England undertake a similar programme for 2019 they need to ensure they do not spread themselves so thinly again, so to gain this sort of experience will mean a total dismantling of this side immediately after this tournament.
If they are seeking specialist ODI and T20 bowlers, the ECB should identify players with one-day potential but not Tests, place them on retainers to augment county wages and ensure they do nothing but develop one-day skills and play only one-day cricket. Somehow more players need to get experience in the T20 competitions abroad, although the English season and the lack of any English coaches in them is not helpful.
Geography and the seasons it brings are unhelpful. But what we are really talking about is a national re-education. No more hierarchy: Test and one-day cricket and cricketers stand shoulder to shoulder as equals and should be seen as such.
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