Photo courtesy of Matthew Cleeve Twitter @matthewcleeve
Yesterday England continued their disastrous form from the World Cup with a shambolic performance in the field in the opening game of their ODI series in the Caribbean. The failings on display were familiar to anyone who has been following the English white ball side of late. Captain Jos Buttler promised a reset after the World Cup exit. Those of us who remember Joe Root’s infamous “red ball reset” in 2022 will find irony in a white ball reset taking place in the same part of the world less than two years later. We all know how the last reset went. On the basis of yesterday’s efforts, this one may not turn out much better.
The squad playing in the Caribbean is markedly different to the one that took part in the World Cup, with only six players retained from the tournament in India, two of which, Liam Livingstone and Sam Curran, had particularly difficult World Cups. Curran continued his struggles by taking 0-98 off 9.5 overs yesterday as Shai Hope and Romario Shepard ruthlessly targeted some scattergun bowling.
There were a few rays of hope for England before Hope snuffed them out with a masterful innings of 109 off 83 balls. Openers Phil Salt and Will Jacks provided some much needed impetus at the top of the innings with a partnership of 87 off 8.2 overs and Gus Atkinson showed some promise with the ball.
This was a much changed side from the one which defeated Pakistan in England’s last game in India. Some players from the World Cup squad have obviously been rested or stood down to give new players a chance in an experimental squad and others, like Ben Stokes, are injured. However, others will be sweating on their future place in England’s white ball plans. Mark Wood had a difficult World Cup, averaging 58.17 at an economy rate of 6.46 an over. At 33 years old, and with a body that has been through many injuries, it is doubtful whether Wood may even want to be part of England’s ODI plans going forward, particularly with a 5 test tour of India to come in January and a plethora of franchise tournaments to choose from. Here in, though, lies the problem.
ODI’s have been relegated to the poor relation of cricket, lagging far behind Test matches in prestige and T20 in global exposure and financial rewards. How many more players in the future will take Ben Stokes’ option of playing Test and T20 cricket and using ODI series as an opportunity for a well needed rest. As Stokes himself said upon announcing his original decision to retire from ODIs in 2022, “The calendar is unsustainable”.
Rob Key, then, has a difficult task. England’s raft of new multi-year central contracts included many deals for players that performed dismally in the World Cup and are on the wrong side of 30. If England’s selectors or the players themselves decide that ODI cricket, and perhaps even international T20, is not for them then the ECB is obligated to keep playing them. Adil Rashid, Buttler and Liam Livingstone are among those with two year contracts and Moeen Ali has been offered a further year despite saying he would be “happy” if his international career ended here. The fact that neither Salt nor Jacks has been offered even a one-year deal is hard to fathom in comparison.
Key, however, is doing the best job he can under difficult circumstances. Multi-year contracts are the only way to keep England’s brightest and best, such as Harry Brook, out of the clutches of the franchises and the threat of 12 month contracts with the biggest teams in the IPL.
A lot of criticism has come the way of the Kent man in the cricket media in the last few months. From being hailed as the instigator of the Bazball revolution, a visionary who could do no wrong, Key is now being portrayed as an overpromoted TV commentator, out of his depth in the big bad world of cricket administration. Such is the nature of the British press, which delights in building someone up and then tearing them down.
A more balanced view would be that Key made some massive mistakes around the World Cup, mistakes that he has openly and commendably admitted to. Announcing the central contract list in the middle of the tournament was a significant blunder that hardly helped the harmony of what already appeared a disunited squad. However, he is also the man who walked through the doors of the ECB when English cricket was at its’ lowest ebb, with the side having won 1 of their last 17 tests and had the courage to appoint Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum, a man who had never coached red ball cricket before, to transform the team. Key could have taken the safe option of an experienced long form coach but he chose to take a risk and must be commended for doing so. Chris Silverwood and Joe Root were, after all, considered the safe option at the time.
So criticism of Key, while justified, must be tempered with considerations of his transformative effect on English cricket.
Jos Buttler and Matthew Mott also have credit in the bank from England’s 2022 T20 World Cup win. However, there have been some worrying signs during the recent tournament in India, which has left question marks over the decision making of both men. Buttler’s decision to bowl first in the oven of Mumbai against South Africa and Mott’s justification that “the stats say it’s a chasing ground” is worryingly reminiscent of Silverwood and Root leaving Stuart Broad and James Anderson out of the attack for the opening Ashes Test at the Gabba on the basis of plans made long before the series began. The top coaches and captains are flexible and react to changing circumstances rather than sticking to rigid long term plans. Mott’s post-tournament press conference did not help either. The coach refused to say what lessons England had learned from their dismal performances in India, telling the media “that’s for you guys to figure out” and refusing a request to give answers to the fans. It was uncomfortably reminiscent of Roy Hodgson’s infamous “ I don’t know what I’m doing here” presser after the England football team’s defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016. The opening performance against the West Indies yesterday will do nothing to quieten the doubters. Caribbean tours have been a graveyard for England captains and coaches before. As well as Root’s resignation after the 2022 series, Peter Moores was dismissed as England coach after a disappointing series against West Indies followed on the back of the World Cup debacle in 2015. Mott and Buttler will hope history doesn’t repeat itself in the next few weeks.