England captain Jos Buttler after losing his wicket in the match against India in Lucknow, October 29, 2023 (Photo: AP)
AS THE EVENING chill settled over the Ekana Stadium in Lucknow, Jos Buttler—England’s harried captain in the 2023 World Cup—marked his crease on a two-paced and abrasive wicket to face Kuldeep Yadav, India’s fantastic Chinaman bowler. Theoretically, the introduction of Yadav should have come as a respite for Buttler, given that the spinner was replacing a smoking-hot Mohammed Shami, now given time to cool off after his just-completed first spell of four overs that not only scythed through England’s top-order with big wickets in what was a relatively small total to chase (India had made 229 runs under the sun), but Shami had also completely dried up the flow of runs.
Now, Shami was given a rest, with Rohit Sharma promptly bringing Yadav into the attack. And now, Buttler was going to see it all. Very first delivery of the sixteenth over, Yadav released the ball from his coiled wrist with plenty of width. The ball pitched well back of a good length and well outside Buttler’s off stump, so the batsman kicked his right foot across the stumps to give himself room, but the ball spun back in with spite, kept low after turning and crashed into the off and middle stumps. Even before the LED bails were alight, Buttler had doubled over his bat, and like that, he stared first at the ground and then at the mess that was his stumps.
It was a contender for the ball of this World Cup, but in retrospect, the moment was perhaps wasted on Buttler and England, for it was the equivalent of kicking a man when he is down; in Buttler’s case, quite literally. Slowly, the England captain picked himself up and trained his disbelieving eyes towards the dressing room, now certain that he had seen every low possible in the space of three weeks. And, somehow, an already abysmal World Cup campaign by the defending champions found a way to get worse.
Way, way worse. Soon bowled out for 129, England’s tiniest sliver of a hope of making an extreme backdoor entry into the semifinal had ended, thanks to their fourth successive loss and fifth in six matches so far—leaving them at the very bottom of the 10-team table, five spots below Afghanistan, two below the Netherlands and one even below the only team they’ve beaten at this tournament, an out-of-sorts Bangladesh.
It is an incredible thing that the same England side that revolutionised the approach and quality of modern-day white-ball cricket with their World Cup wins in 2019 (50 overs) and 2022 (T20s) have found a way to be so shambolic. Playing in Indian conditions isn’t even remotely an excuse as it would have been for previous England teams, for almost everyone in this squad has spent months at a stretch in India annually during the Indian Premier League. Yet, without even as much of a hint as to why, England has managed to pull off what is seldom seen in cricket World Cups but often in the football equivalent: seem much worse with the trophy in hand than without it.
But at least defending champions Italy (in 2010), Spain (in 2014), and Germany (in 2018) were all put out of their miseries in those respective FIFA World Cups within the space of three group games. Because the format of the 50-over World Cup is such, England has to carry their burdens and dead weights for the entirety of nine group matches—each remaining one with the evil potential of humiliating Buttler’s team more than the previous game. Australia, Netherlands, and Pakistan lie in eager wait.
So, what indeed is ailing one of the greatest-ever short format teams of all time? The short answer is no one really seems to know—not the public, not the pundits, not the players themselves, and certainly not England’s support staff and coaches, with head coach Matthew Mott cutting a rather sorry figure in the press conference room after the India game in Lucknow. Mott, the Australian who was poached after a vastly successful stint with Australia’s women’s cricket team and proved to be a great hire by helming England’s run to the T20 World Cup title by November, was asked point blank what was going wrong with his champion side.
“Well, I suppose the latest thing has been our batting, the thing that’s gone wrong. There’s no secret that we keep getting bowled out before we get our full allotment of 50 overs. So, that would be a big part of it,” said Mott, referring to the fact that on three separate occasions in this World Cup so far, England have been bowled out before the 35th over had been completed. “There are a lot of good teams here and a lot of teams that play really well in these conditions. So as a team coming over, we started with a lot of optimism, but it hasn’t worked out.”
England’s bang-bang style of play has worked wonders for them in both the shortest format of the game (t20) and the longest, test cricket. but 50-over cricket is very different
Share this on
It clearly hasn’t and the numbers are startling. England opener Dawid Malan, with 236 runs, is the country’s top scorer at this World Cup and those runs rank 15th on the top runs-scorers list over all. No one else in the side has breached the 200-run mark. Similarly, fast bowler Reece Topley, who hasn’t played a game since their massive 229-run defeat to South Africa more than a week-and-a-half ago because he fractured a finger, still remains England’s most successful bowler at this World Cup with eight wickets; which is the 17th best haul over all.
But the most disappointing watch of the lot has been the return of Ben Stokes, who, four years ago, seemed to be blessed by the cricket gods in the final at Lord’s when he magically, heroically dragged England to their first 50-over World Cup title against New Zealand. The greatest all-rounder of the modern game reversed his ODI retirement in the hope of helping England defend the title, but he has scored a total of 48 runs in three innings, 43 of those runs coming against Sri Lanka in another debilitating loss. He hasn’t bowled a ball yet thanks to his fragile, old body.
All of this makes Eoin Morgan, England’s World Cup-winning captain from 2019 and now a broadcaster, believe that something is awfully wrong inside his former dressing room. “The bit for me that doesn’t wash is the bit of everybody being out of form,” Morgan told Al Jazeera before the India game. “Given how strong the team is, for me, that just doesn’t exist and doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.” This is what he had to say on the record. Off it, to the English press, Morgan has alluded to the fact that he thinks there’s been in-fighting and a rift, for nothing else can explain the suddenness of this downfall. A reporter from the travelling British pack posed Morgan’s doubts to Mott.
“Eoin Morgan said that given how badly it’s all gone makes him think that something is going on in the dressing room. Is something going on?” asked the reporter and Mott smiled. “No, not really,” he replied. “I don’t think that at all. I think anyone that’s inside our tent at the moment would say that despite our results, we’re an incredibly tight-knit unit.” But another English reporter persisted with the line of questioning. “Eoin’s a pretty clued-up guy, he’s got ears in the dressing room, I find it quite hard to believe that he’d be way off the mark with that?” asked the reporter, yet Mott stood his ground. “Eoin’s entitled to his opinion. He hasn’t been in and around the rooms, but I’ll certainly take that up with him and have a chat with him. So, if he’s seeing something that I’m not, I’ll definitely have that conversation.”
Perhaps the conversations needed to be had internally, for a long time—especially on the need to play more ODIs. Since the end of the last World Cup and until the beginning of the ongoing one, the most 50-over games played by any Englishman was 33, by opener Jason Roy, who couldn’t make the squad due to a spate of injuries. That’s an average of eight ODIs a year by the man who played the most for his national team. Then there have been some pretty avoidable calls on the field during this tournament, as pointed out by the former Eng•land captain Mike Atherton in his sincere post-mortem in The Times.
“Mistakes have been made, for sure. The omission of Topley for the first game against New Zealand [in hindsight] looked a poor call. The decision to chase against Afghanistan, likewise. Bowling first in the heat and humidity of Mumbai [sic: Delhi] made little sense and the flip-flopping over selection either side of the South Africa and Sri Lanka games instilled some uncertainty,” wrote Atherton.
Although it didn’t seem to be a problem for them earlier, England is an ageing side. In their last two matches, against Sri Lanka and India, respectively, not one player in those two England elevens was under the age of 30. Not one. This of course means that a once-young team achieved greatness together and the players, all of them, became largely indispensable. But the flipside to a great team ageing together is that when they tend to get stuck in their ways, there’s no fresh blood or thought to bail them out. A case in point is England’s attack-your-way-out-of-trouble approach.
England’s bang-bang style of play has worked wonders for them in both the shortest format of the game (T20s) and the longest, Test cricket, where their play even has a name: Bazball. But 50-over cricket is very different, for it has a long period of middle overs to contend with, during which the best teams such as India play the waiting game, rotating the strike and only putting the bad balls away to the ropes. Not England, which is perhaps why they are often being bowled out well before their quota of overs can be completed.
This madness was witnessed under floodlight display in Lucknow, when Stokes, tied up at one end by a furious spell of bowling by Shami, decided that enough was truly enough. Batting on zero of nine balls, he ran out of patience, cleared his front foot, and took a crazy swipe at a Shami ball that ball was aimed at the stumps. Stokes missed, Shami hit and the woodwork shattered. In celebration, the stadium lights were dimmed to allow for a laser show and quite literally, the lights had gone out of England’s campaign.