“By the barest of margins!” Ian Smith’s words have since passed into the folklore of English sport since they were first uttered as Jos Buttler swept away the stumps to seal England’s first World Cup win in 2019. However, since cricket launched its’ first global tournament in 1975, the nation that hosted the first three World Cups has seen plenty more lows than highs.
It all started in the semi final of the inaugural tournament. England had swept through the group stage with comfortable wins over India, New Zealand and an East Africa team comprising of players from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. However, in the semi final against Australia they would come up against an unexpected foe. 23 year old left arm seamer Gary Gilmour had had an unremarkable career to date but, on a seaming green top at Headingley, he morphed into an unplayable destroyer, taking six wickets for only 14 runs from his 12 overs (this was, of course, back in the days when World Cup games were still 60 overs a side) as England were skittled for only 93. In reply, John Snow and Chris Old reduced Australia to 39-6 and, but for a dropped catch that would have left the visitors 39-7, England may have won. As it was, the hero of the hour Gilmour saw Australia home with a nerveless 28 not out to seal the man of the match award.
Australia would go on to lose to the mighty West Indies in the final, a fate that would befall England four years later in 1979, a tournament that saw England captain Mike Brearley utilise Geoffrey Boycott as an all rounder. The sight of the Yorkshire opener trundling in, cap back to front, to bowl his medium pacers may have surprised a few England fans but it was certainly effective with Boycott taking wickets 5 wickets at 18.80 across the competition. However, nothing could stop the West Indian juggernaut in the Lords showpiece with Viv Richards blasting 138 and Collis King making 86. In reply Brearley and Boycott put on 129 for the first wicket but they did so far too slowly, leaving the middle and lower order too much to do. However, as Brearley said, it wasn’t easy to hit out against “the most powerful fast bowling line up the world has ever seen, bowling with six men back n the boundary”, this being in the days before fielding restrictions.
In 1983 the cricket world expected more of the same, with a third successive World Cup in England and the hosts, West Indies and Australia once again amongst the favourites. However, the winds of change were already beginning to blow through the sport. First of all, Zimbabwe shocked Australia in their first ever World Cup match at Trent Bridge, then England were turned over by India in the semi final, losing by 6 wickets. India’s subsequent shock victory over the West Indies in the final was to have a seismic effect on the international game as the nation with the largest cricket loving population in the world finally took the one-day game seriously. In his excellent history of limited overs cricket, One Day At A Time, David Tossell suggests that a perceived slight over ticket allocation from the MCC towards the head of the BCCI, Narendra Kumar Salve, persuaded him that India should make a concerted effort to bid for the next World Cup, this at a time when it was inconceivable to most of the game’s establishment for the World Cup final to be held anywhere other than the Home of Cricket, Lords. In the end the tournament was held as a joint venture between India and Pakistan, something that would certainly be hard to imagine these days. It was also to be the first World Cup played over 50 overs instead of 60.
Given the alien conditions and England’s fabled inability to play on turning pitches in the subcontinent, Mike Gatting’s men would have been forgiven for approaching the event with something less than optimism. However, if they had been harbouring negative thoughts then they would have been very wrong. England nearly, and probably should have, won the 1987 World Cup. After Australia had denied the tournament organisers the dream India v Pakistan final by beating the co hosts in Lahore, England proceeded to the same to India in Bombay. Graham Gooch had spent the previous day endlessly practicing the sweep shot, to the bemusement of the Indian net bowlers, and now he proceeded to sweep India’s spinners to distraction, making 115 in an innings that still surely ranks as one of the greatest in the history of the limited overs game. Phil DeFretias then dismissed dangerman Sunil Gavaskar early in India’s reply before Neil Foster chipped in with 3-47 to see England to victory by 35 runs. Against all expectations, Gatting’s men had made the final. What happened next would go down in English cricket infamy.
In front of a crowd of nearly 100,000 Australia won the toss and batted first, David Boon making 75 in a total of 253-5. With England 135-2 off 31 overs and seemingly cruising to victory, Australian captain Alan Border brought himself on to bowl to his opposite number Mike Gatting. Gatting attempted a reverse sweep, still a fairly revolutionary shot at the time, and was caught by Dyer running round at short square leg. England never quite recovered their momentum and lost by 7 runs.
In 1992, Australia and New Zealand hosted the first World Cup with coloured kits, white balls and day/night cricket. England would once again reach the final, this time under Graham Gooch, but in controversial circumstances.
A 10 team round robin format will be familiar with modern audiences, with the World Cup having reverted to that since 2019.
South Africa were playing in their first tournament, having been readmitted to international cricket after the end of apartheid and it was they who would meet England in the semi final at Sydney. With South Africa needing 22 off the last 13 balls and the game poised for a thrilling conclusion, it began raining. It wasn’t heavy rain and arguably the players could have stayed on the field but the umpires thought otherwise and took them off. The rain only lasted for 10 minutes and, given that it was already a day/night match, the game could have been completed quite comfortably. However, the archaic rain rule brought in for this tournament insisted that those overs had been lost and South Africa took to the field to find themselves now needing 22 off 1 ball. The fallout that followed this absurdity led to the adoption of the Duckworth/Lewis method for rain affected games that is still in use today. It is worth noting, amongst the understandable South African protests, that the Proteas had been enacting a go-slow during England’s innings which led to Gooch’s men only facing 45 of their allotted 50 overs. Without that, there may have been more time left to finish the game.
Although the finish to the semi final certainly left a sour taste in the mouth, anticipation was high for the final at a sold out Melbourne Cricket Ground between England and Imran Khan’s Pakistan. Pakistan had made an art form out of peaking at the right time during the tournament. They had been on the verge of going out in the group stages and, ironically, would have been eliminated by England in Melbourne had not rain come along and saved them after they had been bowled out for 74.
Pakistan batted first in the final, making 249-6 thanks to Javed Miandad’s 58 and 72 from captain Imran Khan, who had warmed up wearing a t shirt with a tiger on it, to symbolise that Pakistan were at their best when they were “cornered tigers”. England would have felt confident of chasing down the target but they had reckoned without Wasim Akram. Bowling left arm around the wicket and harnessing the power of reverse swing, Akram bowled Allan Lamb and Chris Lewis in successive deliveries to turn the game in favour of Imran’s men. Despite the best efforts of Neil Fairbrother, who made 62, England never got close and Pakistan sealed their first World Cup triumph in the final over by 22 runs.
Having reached two successive World Cup finals, one would expect England to have kicked on in the format and potentially win their first global trophy. However, the limited overs game was changing and the nation that had hosted the first three World Cups was about to be left well and truly behind.
In 1996 the tournament returned to Asia, co hosted by India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The old ideas of building a platform early in the innings and keeping wickets in hand were becoming hopelessly outdated and Sri Lanka were revolutionising the game with the concept of the pinch hitter. Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana took advantage of the fielding restrictions in the first 15 overs with some spectacular hitting. England, with Mike Atherton and Neil Smith opening, looked like a team from a different era. After running into an inspired Nathan Astle in their opening game, who scored 101, England scraped into the quarter finals after finishing 4th in their group, ahead of only the UAE and Netherlands. They were duly dispatched by Sri Lanka in the quarter finals with Jayasuriya scoring 82 off 44 balls, a rate that wouldn’t look out of place in the modern era of T20 cricket.
After the debacle of 1996, England, for the first time attempted to innovate and change tactics in white ball cricket. A specialist one day captain was appointed in Surrey all-rounder Adam Hollioake and the team won their first one-day trophy in Sharjah in 1997. However, injuries and loss of form saw Hollioake lose the captaincy and by the time England hosted the World Cup in 1999 Alec Stewart was installed as both Test and one-day skipper. A pay dispute in the lead up was hardly the ideal preparation and England famously were eliminated before the official tournament song was realised. Stewart and Head Coach David Lloyd, who was scheduled to leave after the World Cup anyway, were relieved of their duties and the era of Nasser Hussain and Duncan Fletcher was ushered in. Stewart was known to feel that he had been dealt with harshly and he may have had a point. He had led England to a rare Test series victory against South Africa the previous summer and his team had performed respectably in losing the Ashes 3-1 in Australia, even winning the Boxing Day Test at the MCG. To sack a captain from the Test team on the basis of performance in a limited overs tournament seemed a strange decision and was certainly consistent with the ECB’s lack of understanding of the differences between the formats in that era, although many felt the ECB were looking for an excuse to oust Stewart after his leading role in the pay dispute with his employers.
The 1999 World Cup has gone into folklore as one of the lowest ebbs of English cricket but perhaps some revisionism is needed. The hosts blew holders Sri Lanka away by 8 wickets in the opening game, before easily dispatching Kenya. They were soundly beaten by South Africa at Lords, a showpiece game that the cricket authorities somehow saw fit to schedule on the same day as the FA Cup Final, before beating Zimbabwe. Had South Africa not succumbed to a shock defeat to the Zimbabweans in their final group game, that would have been enough for the hosts to qualify for the Super Six stage. Indeed, so sure was one broadsheet newspaper of England qualifying that they offered a competition to win tickets to England’s first Super Six game. “We know England will be there, just not who they will be playing yet” the paper claimed. In reality though, disaster was around the corner. England’s crucial mistake was not scoring quickly enough against the Zimbabwe. By taking 38.3 overs to chase down a relatively straightforward target of 168, the hosts ensured that their net run rate was inferior to both India and the Zimbabweans. This meant England would have to beat India in their last group game to ensure progress to the second round. In a game that lasted two days due to rain interruptions and in front of a raucous crowd of Indian supporters at Edgbaston, England succumbed by 63 runs to exit their own World Cup at the first hurdle.
If off field disputes had contributed to the team’s failures in 1999, they paled into insignificance compared to the ones that would face Nasser Hussain’s men four years later. The 2003 World Cup was hosted by South Africa with games also to be held in Zimbabwe and Kenya. This is where the trouble originated. Some teams had security concerns about the volatile political situation in these two countries but England’s worries went far beyond that. The horrific human rights abuses and brutal repression of opposition in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe were, by then, common knowledge and given, the colonial history, Commonwealth ties and the sizeable Zimbabwean diaspora in the country, England were under unique pressure to take a stand. The situation was made far worse by a letter delivered to the England team from a group calling themselves the Sons and Daughters of Zimbabwe promising that the players would be “sent home in coffins” if they set foot in the country. After endless days of security meetings and team deliberations, Hussain, Duncan Fletcher (himself a Zimbabwean) and the rest of the team decided to forfeit their game and, with it, two crucial group stage points. Hussain spoke emotionally in his autobiography the following year about how the team had been instructed by the ECB to only discuss security issues as reason for not going, to protect the board from ICC lawsuits, rather than the moral concerns for the people of Zimbabwe that the captain insisted had actually been paramount in the players minds.
On the field, England could still have qualified for the Super Six stage after a barnstorming victory over Pakistan at Newlands, where a young James Anderson got the ball hooping round corners under the lights to take 4-29.
However, Hussain’s men were to miss out on the second phase after snatching defeat from the jaws of victory against Australia in their final group game. With the old enemy 135-8 chasing 205, England allowed Andy Bichel and Michael Bevan to eke out the runs and take the Australians to victory. Hussain, clearly battered and bruised by his experiences, resigned the ODI captaincy almost immediately and the Test captaincy soon afterwards.
The 2007 World Cup was surely the most catastrophic in the competition’s history. Caribbean cricket is still feeling the effects of the destruction of the cricketing culture in the region caused by the loss of traditional, atmospheric venues such as St John’s in Antigua and the creation of soulless, corporate bowls, paid for by Chinese government loans, that the locals have avoided ever since. On the field, England’s performances, on the back of the 5-0 Ashes defeat in Australia, plumbed new depths of ineptitude. The nadir, of course, was the infamous Fredalo incident where Andrew Flintoff, still drinking away the pressure of his captaincy experience in Australia, was allegedly rescued while in the sea in a pedalo late at night after England’s opening defeat to New Zealand.
9 years after Sri Lankan pitch hitting had shown the way in one day cricket, England still stuck grimly to the approach of slowly accumulating runs and “building a platform” at the start of the innings with predictable results, the team were eliminated in the Super 8 stage.
Of course, all the on field happenings during the tournament paled into insignificance compared to the tragic death of Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer after his team’s shock defeat to Ireland. A colossus of cricket, Woolmer is still sorely missed.
The 2011 tournament in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka is remembered for arguably the greatest shock in the history of the Cricket World Cup and once again it was the unheralded Irish team that would be at the centre of it. At the halfway point of their reply to England’s 327-8, the men in green were 111-5. Bookmakers were offering odds of 350/1 on an Irish victory but they had not reckoned on Kevin O’Brien. The sturdy all rounder had been one of Ireland’s key players in their rise to cricketing prominence but he had never had a night like this. Sporting bright pink hair in support of a cancer charity, O’Brien launched into the England attack. Sixes rained down from the Bangalore night sky as O’Brien hit an astonishing 113 not out off only 63 balls to see Ireland home with 5 deliveries to spare. It was Ireland’s first victory over the old enemy in a competitive match and, coupled with the victory over Pakistan four years earlier, meant that the game’s establishment finally had to take the Irish seriously as a cricketing nation. Test status would follow within the next six years.
This wasn’t the only close game England would be involved in during the tournament with Strauss’ men gaining a reputation as the World Cup’s entertainers. The captain hit a masterful 158 that helped England match India’s 338 in a thrilling tied game. After the extraordinary defeat to Ireland, England managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat against South Africa, defending 171 thanks to a remarkable late Protea collapse. A narrow two-wicket defeat to Bangladesh followed before another nail biting victory over the West Indies saw England through the group stage. Sadly, the excitement ended there with a crushing 10 wicket defeat to eventual finalists Sri Lanka in the quarter finals.
It is said that it is always darkest before the dawn and that was certainly true of England’s performances in the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. With Alistair Cook dismissed as white ball captain less than two months before the tournament, Eoin Morgan was thrown the ultimate hospital pass. Charged with managing a team still ill equipped to deal with the demands of modern one-day cricket and coached by Peter Moores, who would soon be dismissed as England coach for the second time, even Morgan’s magical powers would not be enough to turn things around. After a crushing opening defeat to Australia, England managed to lose a day/night game to New Zealand in Wellington before the lights could even be switched on. The Black Caps chased down England’s 123 all out in an embarrassing 12.2 overs, with Brendon McCullum hitting 75 off 25 balls. I wonder what happened to him?
Things didn’t get any better for Morgan and Moores and, after Sri Lanka chased down 310 with 9 wickets still in hand, the eventual defeat to Bangladesh that confirmed England’s elimination felt like a relief. However, in this moment of ultimate humiliation, the green shoots of recovery were already growing. After years of embarrassment and underachievement in one-day cricket, the foundations for England to become world beaters were already being laid. The ECB kept faith with Eoin Morgan and, in tandem with new Director of Cricket Andrew Strauss and incoming coach Trevor Bayliss, the inspirational Irishman set about transforming white ball cricket in this country. Strauss insisted that the ECB prioritised the shorter form for the first time and insured that Morgan always had his first choice XI on the field, often to the detriment of Joe Root’s Test match side.
The effects of these changes were quickly visible with England hitting 444-3, their record score at the time, against Pakistan at Trent Bridge. Morgan insisted on a fearless, all out attacking approach, similar to that which Ben Stokes has, more recently, instituted in the Test team. Freed from the fear of failure, players such as Jonny Bairstow, Jason Roy and Jos Buttler thrived. The addition of Jofra Archer on the eve of the 2019 tournament, although harsh on David Willey who had been a mainstay of the team for the previous four years, provided England with the added X-factor needed in the bowling attack. All English cricket followers know what happened next. After a slow start that left England on the brink of an unthinkable early elimination from their home tournament, Morgan’s men held their nerve to defeat India and New Zealand in must win games before annihilating Australia in the semi final. There followed one of the greatest games of one-day cricket ever played as England triumphed over New Zealand in a super over at the end of the final in front of a breathless Lords crowd to win the World Cup for the first time “by the barest of margins”.