Dazed and confused England hit by contagion of calamity at Cricket World Cup
Even finishing eighth looks a tall order for the holders.
But one that can finally be discounted is the players’ insistence that ‘the Indian Premier League has made us better white- ball players’. If true, why are they looking so inept in Indian conditions and why are the ‘stars’ in the team, all million-dollar men in the IPL, playing like naive rookies? It really doesn’t add up.
Perhaps it is because the neat little phrases, and the casino cricket they are meant to underpin, don’t mean a thing when confidence is shot and 60,000 Indian supporters are screaming for your blood at volumes not heard since the Beatles played Shea Stadium in 1965.
The same goes for the data this England team are swimming in, data which presumably told the captain Jos Buttler that batting when evening dew descends in Lucknow is an advantage. Really? Not when you have two fine pace bowlers in Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami probing a gnawing line and length, something that used to be an everyday occurrence in top-level cricket but which England’s batsmen made look like an apocalyptic event.
England’s whole campaign has looked a mass of confusion, from selection, to tactics, to individual decision making. Defending champions are meant to be able to withstand the odd setback but resilience has been cursory at best with Sunday’s loss to India a case in point.
To lose a low-scoring game by 100 runs would appear to be a nadir for Buttler’s team who have won just one from six so far, but actually they bowled and fielded pretty well. It was only when they came to bat, and Shami and Bumrah took command of the conditions and the game, that it became obvious how low morale had sunk.
Having made just 229, the only way India could win was to bowl England out. Prevent them doing that, something the batters should have been able to do virtually risk-free, and victory was assured.
That they didn’t even come close made for gruesome viewing, at least for England’s supporters. Once the openers had been despatched and Joe Root and Ben Stokes had been sent back for ducks, it did not matter how long the batting line-up was, the contagion of calamity was upon them and everyone was infected.
Stokes’s dismissal, bowled by Shami having a wild swipe, was particularly unseemly. Persuaded out of 50-over retirement by Buttler, presumably on the back of his experience and appetite for the pressure situation, both those qualities deserted Stokes in Lucknow.
Shami tormented him, pulling him this way then that with nippy seam movement so that he spent nine balls without scoring. The tenth brought resolution, though it was as close to a batsman admitting defeat as I have seen since the great West Indies bowling attacks dominated opponents in the 1980s.
This England team seem to want to play 50-over cricket like it is T20 x 2.5 when actually it is closer to Test cricket. Bowlers need to have a good stock ball, albeit one that challenges the stumps, while batters have to show respect for the conditions and the bowlers, especially when the latter gets on top. Protecting one’s wicket is important.
It is also interesting to see how many teams favour their Test spinners rather than spinning all-rounders who are not quite one thing or the other. India are one, New Zealand and South Africa are two others – three of the top four in the World Cup table.
Eoin Morgan, England’s victorious captain at the last World Cup and a TV pundit at the current tournament, reckons there is something afoot in the England camp for their cricket to have been so poor. He may be right. Few teams are paragons of harmony and fractures can quickly appear when things go as awry as they have here.
Small slights get amplified which makes you wonder why the England and Wales Cricket Board chose to announce its central contracts the day before last week’s game against Sri Lanka and another execrable performance from England.
If it was meant to inspire the rewarded it failed, though it did succeed in motivating one player, David Willey (inset), the only squad member snubbed. Since then he has become England’s best bowler, not that the bar is high.
Matthew Mott, England’s white-ball coach, has denied there are problems with team unity, though playing in India has seen splits between players and management before. In 2008, Kevin Pietersen and Peter Moores fell out following defeat in a Test match England should really have won.
Pietersen felt Moores, a journeyman cricketer before he became coach, did not have the know-how to help and advise him, a rookie captain, in the Test arena.
The fallout cost both men their jobs and you wonder if something similar is playing out now. Buttler is an acolyte of Morgan’s ‘caution to the wind’ approach, while Mott seems a more pragmatic ‘play what is in front of you’ type of guy.
Maybe they are caught between the two which is confusing the team, the first obviously not working but the second suffering because it comes from someone lacking the heft of a former international player. Mott played State cricket in Australia and for the Netherlands before they won ODI status.
England have been poor in previous World Cups, often blaming their performances on being shot from the Ashes series that preceded it. They even got the cycle changed to remove that possibility until this year when, hey presto, an emotionally draining Ashes series has just been played out. Is it a factor? Probably not when Australia have ten Ashes players in India to England’s seven.
Mind you, the Aussies had a slow start but now appear certain to qualify for the semi-finals, unless that is England can beat them on Saturday. Buttler’s team, in tenth place currently, require the win if only to help them qualify for the 2025 Champions Trophy in Pakistan. A top-eight finish is needed which, on current form, looks a long way off.