If the World Cup was a bilateral series – the criterium by which we reached the top of the world rankings – we’d currently be celebrating a 4-3 series win. Everyone would be extolling the vim and virtuosity of our victorious squad, and the management would be basking in the glory of yet another triumph.
But this isn’t a bilateral series. Recent defeats in the World Cup’s league format have hurt our prospects badly. I’ve long said that the current England side plays exciting cricket but loses too many games – we’ve lost two of every five games since the last World Cup – and now the chickens are coming home to mess in the roost.
The other brilliant point doing the rounds – I think this originally came from that wise old sage Mike Atherton – is that England simply aren’t used to playing under pressure. Bilateral ODI series are generally either an afterthought or a warm up for a high profile test series. Consequently there’s little riding on them. They’re essential just a bit of fun in which Jos Buttler and Co can play their trick-shots and entertain the galleries.
Unfortunately, however, World Cups are a completely different specimen. They are the main event. And thus far England have looked completely unsure how to cope in this high pressured environment.
As an avid watcher of other sports I’ve always been fascinated by the style and psychology of teams that win big global events. It’s generally rare for flair teams that light up the group stages to go on and win the actual trophy. Football is a good example. Everyone waxes lyrical about the sexy football played by Brazil, for example, but they last won a World Cup in 2002. And the last time they reached the semi finals (at home) they got trounced by the uber-efficient Germans.
The German football team personifies the style and methodology of typical tournament winners. They are exceptionally well drilled, play the percentages, do the basics well, and make few (if any) mistakes. Champagne football, champagne rugby, and champagne cricket, always seems to be ephemeral. It flashes for a game or two but ultimately fizzles out. It’s the efficient teams that last the course. After all, it’s incredibly hard to execute the fancy stuff and play with complete freedom when the pressure is stifling.
It’s the same in rugby. Teams with a strong set-piece and powerful forwards usually win. Less can go wrong. Even the immensely talented New Zealand All Blacks struggled to win their seminal world cup at home in 2011. They blew everyone away in the pool stages but could only scrape an incredibly nervy 8-7 victory against a poor France side in the final. All the sexy rugby from previous rounds evaporated when the pressure was really on. They’ve since become a colossus because they can play practical rugby and grind out results when needed.
So where does this leave the England cricket team? In my view it looks, at the moment anyway, as though we’ve dedicated the last 4 years to perfecting a strategy that can rarely be perfect – a strategy, I’m afraid to say, that simply doesn’t win big tournaments. One could say the strategy has been rather boneheaded. It’s focuses on getting people through the gates rather than actually winning tournaments.
The contribution of Paul Farbrace on Sky’s post-match Debate programme summed it up really. He completely refused to acknowledge any flaws in England’s approach. I found his pie-eyed optimism and intransigence quite embarrassing really. When Bob Willis pointed out that England had come unstuck on slow pitches in the past (not least the Champions Trophy semi), Farbrace argued that they lost that game because they weren’t positive enough! He simply wouldn’t countenance any criticism at all. No wonder England are so inflexible and unable to learn. What’s wrong with saying “we need to get better from X and learn from this defeat”? Farbrace was basically putting his fingers in his ears.
Perhaps I don’t need to repeat what I’ve said a hundred times before on this blog, especially as this problem is finally being acknowledged by the mainstream media, but England really do only play one way: it’s the gung-ho way or the highway. When they need to adapt, show flexibility, and think things through, they generally come unstuck. And this is why we’re finding the World Cup so difficult: it’s new opposition on different pitches every game. It’s simply not the run-fest on flack tracks we’re accustomed to, especially at home.
The problem with England’s approach was summed up by one incredibly revealing statistic yesterday: we only scored 3 singles in the first ten overs of our innings. This is absolutely flabbergasting – especially as we only needed singles (i.e. less than a run a ball) to win.
England seemed completely infatuated with hitting boundaries. They completely forgot that rotating the strike and hustling ones and twos is the best way to ease pressure and build a chase. Had they done so they wouldn’t have needed to play the ill-advised ambitious strokes that proved their downfall.
What’s really head-scratching is that Finch and Warner showed exactly how to go about building an innings under pressure. They realised conditions favoured the bowlers so they bided their time, dug in, rotated the strike, and almost played first class innings to begin with. The big shots came later.
Whereas Australia’s bowlers seemed to learn from England – the one positive from yesterday is that our bowlers came back strongly in the second half of the Australian innings – our batsmen completely ignored the way Finch and Warner played. It’s almost like the very concept of playing a red ball innings in an ODI is an anathema to them.
So where do we go from here? I’m not sure really. There’s still time for England to qualify for the semis and ultimately win the trophy. Indeed, now our odds are longer we’ll be good value if the right cricket betting offers come up. After all, we probably only need to win one of our last two matches to qualify.
It’s a bit of a cliche but anything really can happen if we reach the semis. If England beat India but then lose the New Zealand, for example, our habit of losing one in every three games might actually work in our favour: we’ll lose the last group game but then win the semi and final! Ahem.
There’s also an argument that maybe, just maybe, the pressure will be less intense now that people realise this England side is flawed? Now their perceived sheen of invincibility has rubbed off, perhaps they can just go ‘xxxx it’ (to coin a phrase) and play with freedom again. They’ll need to encounter favourable pitches, of course, but they may get lucky.
One thing in our favour is that the other sides chasing fourth spot aren’t exactly world beaters at this point. It will be a big ask for Pakistan or Bangladesh to win two of their remaining matches. And if England lose both their remaining games against India and New Zealand then we won’t deserve to qualify anyway.
Whatever happens, however, I think it’s pretty evident that we can no longer claim this England side is exceptional. We’re flawed. One trick ponies if you like. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be a happy ending. It’s just less likely than we thought it was a month ago.
Written in collaboration with Betting Offers Cash