England are a fantastic limited overs batting side. They have been ever since Andrew Strauss took over in the aftermath of yet another disastrous World Cup in 2015. When I spoke to him about the change in England’s fortunes last month, he smiled. “It is quite an extraordinary turnaround, isn’t it?”
That extraordinary shift in England’s approach to batting was on show in Mumbai against South Africa on Friday night. Chasing 230 to win, they made it look easy. Joe Root has become a Colossus over the last two years, and he showed that against South Africa. Root’s name deserves to be uttered in the same breath as the very best batsmen in the world. His 82 from 44 balls anchored a remarkable chase as England made the second highest-winning total ever when batting second and their highest total ever in T20 internationals.
There is such a huge amount to like about this England side but they do have a very big problem. They just aren’t very good at bowling. Against South Africa in this game and against the West Indies in their opening fixture, the seamers have been nothing short of terrible. Against the West Indies a lot of that had to do with the remarkable talents of Christopher Henry Gayle. Against South Africa they were just plain bad.
After the first ball of the 16th over of the South African innings at the Wankhede a graphic was shown on the TV coverage and subsequently shared on the ICC’s Twitter feed. It showed the pitch map of England’s seam bowlers of the innings up to that point. It looked like an as yet undiscovered Jackson Pollock painting; except that the masterpieces of the abstract expressionist looked less random to en untrained eye. No two balls were on the same line or on the same length. While variety is the key to T20 bowling, it is variations while bowling to a plan that work. Here it was impossible for Eoin Morgan to set a field.
Morgan brought the fine leg into the circle and straight away Ben Stokes bowled a full toss on leg stump that was tickled away for four by JP Duminy. In the penultimate over Morgan had brought long off into the circle and Reece Topley bowled a full toss followed by a length ball outside off stump, both of them clubbed down the ground for six. Any pretence of a plan of attack was absent. On a pitch in Mumbai that was flatter than a bottle of Coke after a ride on a roller-coaster England needed to be better. They had to be better.
This is a limited England bowling attack, and as a result they need to make the most of their abilities. What we saw today was the opposite of that. Combined with the inconsistent line and length of the bowling, the England fielders let themselves down — with catches dropped and balls let past them on the boundary. It was an absolute shower, and no one came out of it with any credit, bar perhaps Adil Rashid who kept things tighter than most and collected the wicket of AB de Villiers and Moeen Ali who slowed things down in the middle of the South African innings.
South Africa treated all of England’s seamers with absolute disdain and it was the second time in two games that England’s quick men looked completely out of their depth. None more so than 22-year-old Reece Topley who has looked overawed and out of his depth at this tournament, and in the matches in South Africa that proceeded it. He has little variation and too inclined to just bowl on a length. When he does switch it up and tries to bowl yorkers they are just as likely to end up as full tosses. He is a young kid and can still learn, but right now it is difficult to see how you can justify him staying in the side.
If England are going to challenge for the title at this event they cannot expect their batsmen to chase scores they have never made before, they simply cannot carry on like this. There needs to be a change in personnel. If Topley goes Plunkett needs to come in, and if the seam bowling is this weak there is a case to be made for Liam Dawson’s left-arm spin.
This win keeps them in the hunt for a semi-final spot and they faced the two strongest teams in this group. They should win against both Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, and if they do so they should be in the knockout stages. If they get there they will need to bowl a lot better, a lot, lot better.
As for the batting, it can’t be any better than what we saw today even if the bowling from both sides was poor. If you were to find one area of improvement it would be that Joe Root could have seen the game to a conclusion when he had it under control, but that is probably taking criticism to the point of the absurd.
South Africa’s bowlers have had better days, but the ability to manage a chase even as wickets fell was remarkable from Root and from England.
For years England’s fans have wanted their team to be more attacking, to play modern cricket, to step up at world events when things have gone wrong. Today they saw that, but that was in spite of the bowlers, not because of them.