As you can see above, the headlines from the Features & Analysis section of England cricket’s BBC Sport page make for uncomfortable reading. Placed next to picture galleries of happier days, including looking back at Pietersen and Swann’s England careers, are the inevitable doom and gloom articles written by Jonathan Agnew following a third heavy defeat in Australia / New Zealand. BBC, obviously, aren’t alone in this. Nasser Hussain has called England toothless; Michael Vaughan has slated the negative and predictable culture within the ECB whilst former all-rounder Adam Hollioake thinks the side’s fear of failure is holding them back. Even current cricketers are laughing at England, with Sri Lanka’s opener Thirimanne saying our bowlers were easier to bat against than Afghanistan’s. None of this is harsh, none of it is undeserved, England are on a hiding to nowhere down under and the media would have you believe there is no hope of redemption.
In truth, the points table for Pool A looks almost exactly as I expected it to. New Zealand are top with a 100% record, Australia and Sri Lanka look in a good position to qualify and given how the fixtures have worked out, Bangladesh are in the top 4 but England aren’t. The only difference is one more point for the tigers and one less for the Aussies, following their match in which a ball wasn’t bowled due to rain. It was always going to come down to England needing to beat both Bangladesh and Afghanistan to qualify. If the points amassed isn’t surprising then the manner of defeats is. Against Australia, England found themselves 5 down for only 73 in the 18th over chasing 343. New Zealand was an even bigger debacle, as the Kiwis only needed 12.2 overs to knock off the runs from our horrific batting effort. England’s batting has steadily improved as the tournament has gone on, highlighted by the 300+ runs made when batting first against both Scotland and Sri Lanka however both matches have shown how weak our bowling is. Scotland scoring 184 was bad enough, the fact that Sri Lanka knocked off 312 in 47.2 overs and for the loss of only one wicket was soul crushing.
It’s clear that there are a lot of problems within the English set-up, but those aren’t ones we should address just yet. For now, the focus needs to be on the short-term and making the most of the resources we possess down under to turn this around. The next week will determine whether England qualify for the quarters or not, and quite frankly it will be an absolute disgrace if they don’t. However, Bangladesh will fancy their chances against the wounded 3 Lions and who can blame them? This article will be exploring all aspects of our play in detail and explain how I would change each to get the whole team playing better.
Scores of 231, 123, 303/8 and 309/6 simply aren’t good enough at this level. In this tournament, South Africa have set the batting bar very high, with 2 scores of 400+ in a row. I would never expect to match that, however I would like to see us around Sri Lanka and India’s level. Sri Lanka have set 330+ and chased 300 easily whilst India look like they will make 300 every time they bat (they chased 103 against UAE in less than 20 overs for the loss of 1 wicket – if given the full 50 overs that would have been close to 400). On paper, our batting is as good as the teams mentioned above. Root and Ali both have centuries; Taylor should have one, Buttler bats quickly and usually comes off while Morgan and Bell haven’t become bad players overnight. The obvious problem is Gary Ballance at number 3.
Before the Sri Lanka match, ESPNCricinfo took a look at England’s struggles at number 3. The analysis makes for fascinating, if gloomy, reading. To summarise, England number 3’s for the last two years average 22.93, which is lower than every test nation’s bar Bangladesh. Yes, even Zimbabwe’s. It gets worse. In that time, England have tried Root (average: 8.66 from 3 innings), Bell (18.75 from 4), Stokes (21.25 from 4) and Ballance (19.75 from 8). None of them is close to the leader, James Taylor, who has batted 8 times at 3 and averages 45 with a strike rate of 73. So, with those stats, it baffles me as to why we persist to play Ballance there. Quite simply, Taylor is wasted at 6.
The number 3 spot is possibly the most crucial one in cricket. Should an early wicket fall, they are needed to steady the ship and bat a few overs but are also required to bat quickly if an early wicket doesn’t fall. A number 3 needs to set the platform for a fast finish with a solid 50–100 runs (like Kumar Sangakkara, Kane Williamson, Virat Kohli and Faf du Plessis all do). In the same timeframe, Williamson averages 66.7 in 23 innings including 3 centuries and 10 fifties. A number 3 won’t always come off but, like Williamson, you need him to be reliable and have more chance of firing than not.
Like the problem, the solution seems obvious. Promote Taylor to 3 and bring in Bopara at 6. Drop Ballance as he is woefully out of touch and bringing this England side down. With a more reliable number 3, Morgan will come in later and therefore have more licence to play his normal game. It also won’t negatively affect Root as it will give him someone to bat with whilst he gets settled.
The other problem I have is with the opening partnership. As you all know, I’ve had a problem with Bell at the top since it was announced he would get the role. Nothing I’ve seen has changed my mind, however I see why they want Bell in there. One day cricket tends to start slow these days, setting the platform for a smash at the end however I’d argue England don’t look like batting 50 overs most of the time now and so setting a fast platform won’t be a terrible idea. Hales should come into the side, his talent is too good to be wasted on the bench. One solution is to drop Bell to 3 and keep Taylor at 6. On paper, Bell should be the perfect player at 3. He’s reliable enough to stay at the crease for a long time while possessing the ability to cut the shackles off should he need to. Another solution is just to drop Bell completely, although I see why the selectors are reluctant to do that. A left-wing possibility could be to play Hales at 6. It takes away his ability to use the pace of the new ball but will put him in a position to use the last 15-20 overs, essentially making him a T20 opener in the longer format. It allows Taylor to bat at 3 and keeps Bell in the side, it seems like a perfect compromise.
I have no problem with the middle order; Root, Morgan, Bopara/Taylor and Buttler can all make big scores and are one of the best middle orders in the world. My only concern is the batting order is too rigid, if we are 200/2 in the 30th over then Morgan and Buttler should be getting ready to come in to make the most of the batting power-play.
Ah, where to start with the bowling? Every single ball seems to be placed in the same area, on a good length otherwise known as “the slot” for top class batters. Bouncers are more like limpers, barely possessing enough pace to reach the crease and yorkers are, as usual, about as common as a Scottish victory at a world cup. England refuse to adapt to one day bowling, and keep trying to rely on swing to get batters out. Finch, McCullum, Thirimanne and Sangakkara have already shown that it’s a suicidal tactic these days. Let’s put it this way: if England were wheeling Bob Willis and Ian Botham out to open the bowling in this world cup I am positive they would be 10x more threatening than Anderson and Broad are. The leaders of the attack look less like fast bowlers and more like lambs being led to slaughter. Between this tournament and the last, Anderson had the best average and economy rate of any opening bowler in the world. Where has that gone? You could argue that Oceania conditions don’t suit him but that simply isn’t true, during the 2010-11 Ashes he was the best bowler. Also, conditions in New Zealand and Australia have always suited the traditional swing bowlers, a skill which he leads the world at. England need Anderson, and Broad to fire and fire quickly else our batters could score 400 and still lose.
Even despite their poor form, Broad and Anderson are basically un-droppable. There isn’t a young 90mph quick biting at their heels ready to take a shot at this tournament and nor are Woakes or Finn realistically doing enough to warrant the new ball. Woakes has 4 wickets at an average of 34, which is much better than any other English bowler (Ali 3 wickets at 52, Anderson 2 at 92, Broad 2 at 92 and Root 1 at 50) but it still isn’t great. For the record, Finn has 8 at 25. Talking about Steven, McCullum hammered Finn in the match against New Zealand; his two overs went for 49 runs and returned 0 wickets. It wasn’t much better for him against Sri Lanka, he leaked 54 runs in 8 overs, was again wicket less and Morgan looked reluctant to give him a bowl. Woakes has been consistently better over the 4 matches, he was the only one not to get smashed by New Zealand (and got the two wickets) and has the best economy rate of all the seamers (although 6.14 isn’t brilliant). None of our bowlers are death bowlers, leading to a whole new problem. It’s clear to see that changes are required.
The thing is, this is where the bowling situation goes from worrying to desolate. The other options are Jordan, Tredwell and Bopara. For a start, Bopara isn’t a true bowler, however his inclusion in the side would lower the pressure on Morgan and the other bowlers as he could replace a seamer who is being hit out of the attack. It says a lot that Bopara is our best reserve bowling option. Including Tredwell in this side would seem unnecessary as Ali and Root are doing decent enough jobs as the spinners as well as scoring runs with the bat. Jordan is a massive conundrum. When he first came into the England side he looked a proper prospect, bowling with real pace and possessing enough ability to think about how to get batters out. In 20 ODI’s he has taken 33 wickets at 30, which is decent if not outstanding. Since his quick start he has been in and out of the side, culminating in playing only one match of the recent tri-series. He could be a destructive bowler however seems like too much of a risk to take in a must-win scenario like we now find ourselves in.
It’s difficult to know what to suggest to improve our bowling. On the face of it, Finn is our most predictable bowler and so needs to be dropped however an attack of Anderson, Broad, Woakes and Jordan looks far too similar to me. Furthermore, with Anderson, Broad and Jordan all lacking in form, too much pressure will be placed on Woakes who isn’t ready to be the leader of this attack. Would it be possible to drop Broad and give Finn the new ball? Well, there are two points to this. Firstly, would Finn be more or less expensive with the new ball? Logic suggests more however with the extra pace a new cherry brings the likelihood of taking wickets improves. Secondly, can Woakes and Jordan pick up wickets in the middle overs? The benefit of playing Finn is that he can pick up wickets at regular intervals and breaks up partnerships in the middle overs (apparently). Personally, despite it contradicting what I said in the last paragraph, I’d like to light a fuse up Broad or Anderson’s backsides and drop one of them to remind them that England aren’t afraid to drop big reputations.
Going back to Tredwell for a minute, there is no doubt he would offer more control in the middle overs than Finn or Woakes but I don’t necessarily see this as a good thing. I reckon teams would be happy to knock Tredwell around for 5 or 6 an over, knowing he doesn’t possess enough to blow teams away and also knowing that they can easily score 10 or 12 an over in the last 15 against the worst death bowling unit in the world.
As per usual, England’s fielding has been below world standards. India have dropped one catch all tournament, England have dropped more than we can count. If Buttler’s batting is destructive, his wicket-keeping is very much a work in progress. It was simply his fault that Thirimanne scored 100+* against us recently, for he should have caught him early on. In our matches, I think we have dropped every single player who went on to make a century. Obviously that isn’t good enough. There is a desperate need for a better fielding coach, and the obvious candidate is the best fielder I have ever seen play the game, Paul Collingwood. He would sort this side out and cut out the silly mistakes that hinder the bowlers.
In the now though, it’s difficult to see what could inspire our fielders to look livelier. If there’s no “X-Factor” in the bowling options, there is even less in the fielding stakes. Anderson has lost his spark, Bell and Morgan don’t seem as confident as they used to and the players brought in (Woakes, Finn, Ali and Ballance) aren’t able to catch a cold. Joe Root is an electric fielder and he needs to take control and make sure the side rallies around him. Serious work is needed in practice; this is not an element of the game to be taken lightly any more.
Are there any positives? Well, the format has been in our favour all along. 3 bad matches in the Football edition and its thank you very much, but now you must go home. In Cricket, we have 2 games to turn this around and reach the knockout stages. We should beat both Afghanistan and Bangladesh however nothing is a given. On the field, Root is becoming our most reliable and crucial player, underlined by his classy knock against Sri Lanka. Moeen Ali deserves to be a regular fixture at the top of the order and Woakes is the only bright light from a dreadful bowling unit. These 15 aren’t bad players, it’s just that they are made to look that way by being ultra conservative.
None of our players possess the destructive ability that AB de Villiers, Chris Gayle, Kohli, McCullum or David Warner have in abundance and that is a problem however it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be able to win. There needs to be a raising of their game from every single player pulling on the blue shirt. If England play as a unit rather than a set of lost individuals, if every player pulls their weight and if the team has a better balance (ie, without Ballance) then there is a chance we will win the close matches against sides on our level. However, all of that is a long way off and even I, who have tried so hard to be positive about this, am losing any hope of doing anything other than the usual English failure. Going forward, those in charge of the ECB need to look at how to improve the way they treat one day cricket, promote one day specialists and improve death bowling. For now, one or two changes can be made to hopefully improve this side’s fortunes.
Throughout writing this, my mind has been shifted on many selection issues and now I will attempt to give my best XI. I believe Hales needs to be in the side, however given the form he showed before the tournament am reluctant to drop Bell. Taylor needs a bigger role as he is an exciting prospect and our death bowling needs to improve, which can only be done by including Jordan. I would like to see Bopara at 6 to ease pressure on Finn however this isn’t possible while including Bell, Taylor and Hales. My argument for Hales at 6 was one I came up with on the spot however it has convinced me, even though it means keeping Ali and Bell at the top. So, for Bangladesh I would try this side, with a flexible batting line up:
Ali, Bell, Taylor, Root, Morgan, Hales, Buttler, Jordan, Woakes, Anderson, Finn.
I’ve reached that conclusion based upon Broad and Ballance’s form, Taylor’s record at number 3, the fact that Hales at 6 will help make the most of the batting powerplay and Jordan’s inclusion should improve the death bowling and fielding. It’s far from being the best side in the tournament however there is genuine quality within it and hopefully Broad being dropped will improve him and Anderson. Giving Finn longer in the side shows faith in him, which will do his confidence a lot of good. I realise throughout this article I contradicted myself a fair bit by saying Ali and Bell shouldn’t open together and Jordan wouldn’t improve the side but including both of those in my team. This highlights what a difficult job the England selectors have.
England’s participation in this tournament is clinging by a thread. It’s not quite win or bust however when Bangladesh defeat Scotland it will reach that stage. The headlines on the BBC website and other news outlets won’t improve without serious changes to England’s approach. I’ve suggested what changes I would make; no doubt other people have other ideas and the management theirs. Even if this improves, it is almost guaranteed that England will exit stage left in the quarter finals once more. We are in serious danger of becoming almost as irrelevant on the international stage as Bangladesh and Zimbabwe are. English cricket is going backwards and it’s a shame because the rest of this World Cup has been very enjoyable indeed.