I began writing this article when England seemed on course to become the first team to beat India at this World Cup, proving conclusively that there was still life left in this once great side. However, we all know what happened next.
The English ODI side still possesses some world class cricketers but there is no denying that they have catastrophically underperformed in the last few weeks in India. The record defeat to South Africa seemed like it would be the low point but the spineless capitulation to a Sri Lanka side that had previously only beaten the Netherlands at the tournament was far, far worse. England appeared a side devoid of all confidence and belief, which made today’s stirring bowling performance all the more surprising, even if the batting collapse that followed it had an air of inevitability.
The cricket media has gone into overdrive suggesting reasons for the holders’ almost certain elimination from the tournament. The usual suggestions are all there, in particular the Hundred, which has been blamed for so many different ills that it is a wonder its detractors have not yet put forward its existence as a viable reason for climate change. The lack of 50 over cricket played by England players in the last four years as a result of the new competition is certainly vexing. However, it may be a slight red herring in explaining the team’s hapless performances in India. After all, Ben Stokes did not play a single domestic 50 over game between 2016 – 2019 and yet it certainly did not seem to hamper him from performing Roy of the Rovers style heroics when the 2019 World Cup came round. Many of his teammates had played very little domestically either. 50 over county cricket in this country was in decline long before the invention of the Hundred accelerated its’ demise.
Far more significant is the fact that England have only played 42 ODI’s in the last four years, compared to 88in the four years leading up to the previous tournament. Eion Morgan always had his first choice side available too, with English cricket’s MD Andrew Strauss prioritising white ball cricket in the lead up to a home World Cup, leading to Morgan and coach Trevor Bayliss being able to create a coherent strategy based around a small group of players who, by the time the tournament started, were almost all guaranteed their places in the side. By contrast, Jos Buttler could count on the fingers of one hand the times he has had his first choice XI on the pitch since assuming the one-day captaincy and it shows. England’s thinking has been muddled long before Jason Roy was promised a place in the World Cup squad only to see it taken away at the last knockings and given to Harry Brook. In an era where the disastrous performances of the Test team under Joe Root and Chris Silverwood prompted a re-focusing on red ball cricket, Buttler and coach Matthew Mott have been dealt a poor hand. Root himself, often denied his best five-day XI due to the infamous “rest and rotation” policy must have some sympathy.
Perhaps England’s problems run deeper than this, though. Seven of the first choice XI for this World Cup played in the recent Ashes series under Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum, an unusually high amount of multi-format cricketers in this modern era. One wonders if the more reserved leadership styles of Buttler and Mott might be an anti-climax to some players used to the charisma and inspiration of the Bazball boys. Indeed, perhaps England’s white ball leadership team are the cricketing equivalent of Sven Goran Eriksson, a perfectly capable coach who always struggled to get the best out of English footballers schooled under the charismatic leadership of Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho or Arsene Wenger. To go from the carefree, instinctive approach of Stokes and McCullum to fielding first in conditions that resembled the inside of a microwave oven because “the stats say it’s a chasing ground” must be some contrast. England were playing fearless cricket in the summer, now they appear gripped by fear.
Sir Andrew Strauss, one of England’s greatest modern captains, often spoke of “not falling in love with your wins” but this is exactly what English sport always does. In the same way that every England football manager for 50 years appeared wedded to playing a long-ball, 4-4-2 formation game because that’s how the boys of ’66 won the World Cup, English cricket has always sought to replicate its’ greatest moments. In 2006-07 a hopelessly ill-equipped, out of form side was selected to defend the Ashes because Michael Vaughan and Duncan Fletcher had decided that as many of possible of the Ashes winning side of 2005 must be given the chance to defend the urn Down Under, irrespective of form and whether better players had emerged in the meantime.
The same mistake has been made in India in 2023. Too many of the 2019 World Cup winning team have been selected and, for many of them, it would appear to be one tournament too many. It is hard to understand why Will Jacks was overlooked for Moeen Ali, for example. Ben Stokes would have been better served taking time to receive treatment for his troublesome knee and ensure he was fully fit to lead England in a five Test series in India in January and beyond, than in trying to replicate his 2019 heroics.
History will remember many of these players as part of England’s greatest ever white ball cricket team, but India 2023 has conclusively proven to be a bridge too far. One wonders how many will have the appetite to stick around for the rebuild, or indeed whether they will be given the chance to.