It hasn’t taken long for this England World Cup campaign to go from serene progress to a genuine fear that the best one-day side they have produced in the last 40 years won’t make the knockout stages. The dreadful team who stumbled their way to a group stage exit in 2015 made sense. They were playing old-fashioned cricket badly. They deserved all they got. But here is an England team who has bossed this format for four years in danger of not making the semi-finals in a tournament which was designed specifically to help the best sides make the latter stages.
That is not to say the situation that England find themselves in isn’t entirely of their own making. The reasons for their predicament are fairly plain to see. They have, at various points in this tournament, fielded badly, bowled badly, or batted badly. Against Australia at Lord’s, they managed all three at various points of their 64-run defeat.
They have struggled in the field. Against Pakistan, they dropped Mohammad Hafeez when he was on 14. He made 84 and England lost by 14 runs. While it is an overly simplistic metric to just say this cost them 70 runs, it certainly didn’t help. Against Australia, two early chances went down. They were ridiculously hard, but they could have stuck on another day.
They have struggled with the ball. Against Pakistan, we saw Jofra Archer bowl with inconsistent lengths and get taken for 0/79. Chris Woakes took three wickets in that match but went at nearly nine an over. Against Australia, all of England’s seamers struggled after a strong opening burst. Between overs 10 and 25, they bowled neither full nor short. It was all too easy for both Aaron Finch and David Warner to score. By the time they had recalibrated their lengths and brought England back into the game, Australia probably already had too many runs on the board.
They have struggled with the bat. Against Sri Lanka, they never found a way to score easily on a tricky pitch. The same is true against Australia. It is only Ben Stokes who has looked comfortable. The middle order dashers have all fallen away when the pitch hasn’t been a flat one. For a team that has so much batting talent, their inability to adapt when faced with a ball misbehaving has been such a big part of their journey between World Cups.
That is what has gone wrong, it is harder to work out why. The injury to Jason Roy has been a massive part in England’s batting struggles against Sri Lanka and Australia. The solidity of the partnership between Roy and Jonny Bairstow at the top of the order has been the foundation on which their success has been built. We saw what a big opening stand can do to opposition bowlers when Australia put on 123 runs for the first wicket at Lord’s. His hamstring injury against the West Indies may well be the moment that defines this World Cup for England. The fact that Alex Hales wasn’t in the squad as a like for like replacement may well be one of those footnotes that are part of England World Cup failures.
Perhaps England’s gung-ho approach isn’t suited to tournament cricket. In a five-match ODI series, you can afford to have two bad games and still win. You can formulate plans against a certain bowler and go again the next game with a different method if Plan A fails. In a tournament, you play a team once and have to succeed at the first try. If England had been playing Sri Lanka in four more games, you would expect them to win all four. Against Australia, you could see England coming back hard in a series and win the thing. That is not how World Cups work.
Or maybe it is that the World Cup hoodoo is getting to England. The weight of expectation, the history of World Cup failure, the fact that the last four years in their entirety have been based around winning this tournament. That is a lot to take on board, even for a team that has an “express yourself” mantra. Maybe it has just been all too much, and the clarity of approach that has been integral to England’s success has been lost somewhere along the way.
Whatever the reasons, England now sit on eight points and are looking over their shoulders. There are four teams who can overtake them — Bangladesh and Pakistan are the most likely, but there is a set of results that sees West Indies and even Sri Lanka make the knockouts ahead of them.
Their destiny is still in their own hands. They win both of their matches and they are in the semi-finals. Thanks to their net run rate no team would be able to get to leapfrog them into fourth place. Even if they win one of their two matches, chances are that would be enough. The dream of a World Cup win certainly isn’t over, but England aren’t making it easy on themselves.