The World Cup is only three weeks away. Are you excited? Personally I feel quite nervous already. This is undoubtedly the best chance we’ve ever had of winning the trophy. We can’t blow it. Can we?
Unfortunately World Cups, indeed global ODI tournaments in general, haven’t been kind to England over the years. We reached the World Cup final in 1979, 1987, and 1992, and we lost all three. What’s more, we screwed up the Champions Trophy Final in 2004 and 2013. That’s five finals with diddly squat to show for it. And they say South Africa are the world’s biggest chokers!
This time, however, things are sure to be different. We’ve got a team oozing with batting talent. In fact, this particular team has compiled, or perhaps I should say blasted, the two highest team totals in ODI history: 481-6 against Australia at Trent Bridge and 444-3 at Trent Bridge against Pakistan.
Every single member of our top 6 is in the top 30 of the ICC batting rankings. There’s Root (6), Buttler (14), Bairstow (17), Morgan (19), and Stokes (29). In fact, we’ve got so much strength in depth that the selectors have jettisoned the batsman who occupies 30th position – a certain Mr Alex Hales esq. No other side has depth like that.
Although the bowling doesn’t look particularly strong on paper – only Adil Rashid (10), Chris Woakes (18), and Mark Wood (24) meet the same benchmark – I think there’s enough talent there to keep England competitive. What’s more, the likely inclusion of Jofra Archer, who had a good game against Pakistan in the recent T20, should add the extra pace and wicket taking potential we’ve been missing.
Basically things are looking good at this stage. Very good. England are 9/4 favourites with Marathon Bet. So what, if anything, could possibly go wrong? I’ll tell you what. P.R.E.S.S.U.R.E.
England will be under more pressure in this World Cup than we’ve ever had before. In fact, one might argue that we’re under more pressure than any cricket team (from anywhere) in history. Although I’m sure India fans will beg to differ.
Firstly, Eoin Morgan’s team will have to cope with the pressure of being hosts. That’s easier said than done. The host nation is always under closer scrutiny than their rivals. And sometimes this can create all kinds of mental demons. Just ask Tim Henman.
A good comparison might be the New Zealand All Blacks back in 2011. Despite being the best team in the world by some distance before the World Cup (in which they were hosts) the All Blacks very nearly blew it. They scraped home in the final 8-7 against a far from vintage France team that was nowhere near their equal on paper.
When the pressure was really on the mighty All Blacks found it incredibly difficult to get over the line. The sparkling rugby they produced earlier in the tournament completely evaporated as fluffed their lines in front of an increasingly nervous home crowd. The problem for the England cricket team is that they’re nowhere near as good at cricket as the All Blacks are at rugby.
England will also be under huge pressure because they’re the world’s No.1 ranked team and clear favourites. This gives writers like me an excuse to proffer all those familiar sporting cliches: the team will have a target on its back etc.
What worries me is that England don’t normally cope very well with being favourites. We’ve lost to a host of minnows in the past in white ball contests: Bangladesh (2015), Zimbabwe (1992), Scotland (2018), and Ireland (2011). We also lost to the Netherlands at Lord’s in the 2009 T20 World Cup.
What’s more, we didn’t exactly cope very well with being favourites in the 2017 Champions Trophy. We stormed through the group games but fell on our arses big time against Pakistan in the semis. Although this experience might help us (i.e. we could learn from our mistakes) it might also leave some mental scarring. Nobody will know until we enter the pressure cooker once again.
Finally, Captain Morgan’s men are under huge extra pressure that’s entirely of their board’s making. The ECB have sacrificed so much to win this trophy that it will be disastrous if the team fails to do so.
White ball cricket has been prioritised in recent years for the specific purpose of winning England a World Cup on home soil. The test team has suffered as a consequence, and domestic first class cricket has been pushed to the fringes of the season.
What’s more, the board desperately need England to win the trophy in order to persuade a disapproving public that they’re not completely inept (and do actually have a plan). The cacophony of criticism being directed at the ECB for launching The Hundred has been deafening at times.
England winning the World Cup will shut everyone up. At least for a bit. The England players will be all too aware of this criticism, and will be under huge pressure from their employers to deliver.
So will England cope with this pressure? That’s the million dollar question. Although it’s possible to read too much into recent events I don’t think the signs are particularly good.
For starters the ECB itself seems particularly irascible at the moment. They don’t want anything to spoil what they hope will be their perfect summer; therefore they’re really clamping down on player ill-discipline and, in my opinion, either overreacting or mishandling controversial situations.
And then there was Eoin Morgan’s curiously severe criticism of Alex Hales following his failed drugs test. We all got the message about team culture loud and clear, but perhaps his intolerance said something else too.
The usually relaxed Morgan seemed particularly upset and on edge. And this can only be the pressure the team are under to deliver results this summer.
The bottom line is this: if England come second in the World Cup, and lose by a single run in the final, then our World Cup will be considered a monumental failure. Winning really is everything on this occasion.
The problem, of course, is that uptight teams don’t always win. This was supposed to be one of the key lessons learned after the last World Cup where the intense Peter Moores wore everyone out.
One of the reasons why Paul Farbrace and then Trevor Bayliss were able to turn around our white ball fortunes is because they created a relaxed environment in which the different personalities could thrive, enjoy their cricket, and play with freedom.
But will it be possible to continue playing in this vein during the World Cup? It must be a concern.
Big finals (whatever the sport) are usually won by teams that do the basics well and make the fewest mistakes. They’re also won by players that think clearly and keep their head at crucial moments.
England’s highly aggressive and high-risk approach therefore might not be suited to the pressure-cooker of knock-out cricket. Our strategy is to take risks rather than play the percentages. And that requires a level of skill that might not be sustainable in highly stressful situations.
Written in collaboration with Marathon Bet