Five different four-year plans in every World Cup cycle – the illusion of stability in English cricket
After six months of solid one-day cricket, England started the World Cup with a different side. Chris Woakes had been opening the bowling and doing well – he came on first change. Gary Ballance hadn’t played one-day cricket for six months – he came in at number three. James Taylor had been making a decent fist of batting at three – he came in at six.
As well as making a mockery of all the months of World Cup preparation the team had enjoyed, the most striking theme of these changes is that they ‘fixed’ things that didn’t need fixing.
You need long-term plans, but you can’t be beholden to them. Ballance at three makes sense, but if he hasn’t actually been playing cricket and you appear to have fluked a decent number three in the meantime in the form of Taylor, then Taylor becomes Plan A. Similarly, Stuart Broad may well be your first-choice opening bowler, but if he’s had surgery and seems a shadow of his former self, you have to respond to what’s in front of you.
Maybe it’s a labels thing. Maybe the stats program associates data with a name without recognising that the person bearing that name doesn’t always remain a constant. People say England play like robots, but the point is that they really, really don’t and so treating them that way makes no sense.
It’s not really about picking the right players
It’s not even about giving them the right roles within the team. It’s that there’s a way of managing a team. People think that you can pick explosive cricketers and tell them to play with freedom, but that sort of self-expression thrives best in a stable environment.
A lot of people will point at Peter Moores as being guilty of that mismanagement, but is that really fair? England also lost to Bangladesh in the last World Cup and here’s what we wrote this time last year when the Netherlands beat England in the World T20.
“The will to win will always triumph when pitted against a fear of failure,” is one line from that piece and that’s the thing – England’s tournament performances are always absolutely shot-through with a fear of failure.
It’s the culture
It’s not the culture. People say it’s the culture of English cricket, but it’s not. England produces plenty of liberated attacking cricketers. Nor is it the fault of the head coach really. Whoever that is tends to know the value of playing ‘no fear’ cricket. It’s just that they invariably inherit an environment where producing such a thing is almost an impossibility.
There’s an illusion of stability in the way the England cricket team is managed. There are reviews, there are plans and then there’s another revolution. The fear of change and the desire for stability leads to a stubborn marriage to whatever overarching plan is currently considered ‘correct’. There’s intransigence where there should be flexibility and then overreaction when there should be moderation.
Think of it like the moving of tectonic plates. In most cricket nations, they slide. They’re never static, but nor is there much drama. In England, the plate sticks, the pressure builds and then it suddenly lurches forward causing a huge earthquake.
Imagine you’re playing for England
Good cricket requires conviction. The blessed few have this in abundance, no matter what the circumstances, but most rational humans require evidence on which to build their self-confidence. Practice makes perfect and the more times you’ve done something, the more confident you will be that you can perform the task in question.
Today’s England number three was playing his eighth one-day international. The guy he replaced had just played his 16th. The guy he replaced had played 11 one-dayers when he was moved down the order.
Kumar Sangakkara has played 402 one-day internationals and 236 of them at three. In the last two years, he has batted in no other position because he has been looking to practise and perfect his role. You might think that is an unfair comparison, but the point is that even Kumar Sangakkara needs steady, consistent preparation.
It’s not just number three either. This was the 20th time that Moeen Ali had opened the batting in a one-day international and if Ian Bell seems like he’s been the opener for a while, he was out of the side as recently as December.
The Bell example is another good one
People typically have one of two major gripes about Bell right now. One, that he’s too lumpen to open the batting in one-day internationals; or two, that he’s inexplicably playing in lumpen fashion when opening the batting in one-day internationals despite having it in him to play more expansively.
On the face of it, Bell as opener in this World Cup is a ‘plan’. But looked at more closely, they gave him a nice long run-up and then tried to trip him up at the last minute. Having performed well as opener for a couple of years, they shunted him to three last summer and then dropped him after two failures. They brought him back in Sri Lanka – again at three – and then dropped him after one failure and a run-a-ball 35.
Bell is England’s senior one-day batsman – far more experienced than anyone else – and management somehow managed to make him fearful and uncertain of his place in the side just in time for a World Cup. That is quite an achievement. Put him in a team with 10 other people feeling much the same way, add the threat of World Cup elimination, stir in the potential humiliation of losing to Bangladesh and serve. Delicious.
Who’s to blame?
The players are at the pointy-end of a mighty wedge of chaos that is driven into every major world tournament.
Do you blame the cricketers for playing with a fear of failure when they’re inexperienced or undermined and part of a side that’s been cobbled together through luck as much as judgement?
Do you blame the coaching team who inherited a floundering one-day side captained by a Test batsman who shouldn’t have been playing but couldn’t be sacked? After all, they’ve had to cobble together a side in a short space of time after said captain was finally removed within months of the World Cup.
Or do you blame the administrators who make at least five different four-year plans in every four-year cycle – one after each Ashes series, one after each World T20 and one after each World Cup?
They wouldn’t need to do this if England were successful, of course, but where are all the stalwarts on whom that last plan depended? Where’s Pietersen? Where’s Trott? Where’s Bresnan? Where’s Swann? And why do Anderson, Broad, Finn, Morgan and Bopara now seem like wishy-washy watercolour paintings of their former selves?
It’s not that England have problems at World Cups. It’s just that World Cups are when tension and pressure are the greatest and when conviction, self-confidence and experience become most valuable. World Cups are simply where England’s perennial problems come to a head.32 Appeals
You probably have something to say about England getting bundled out of the World Cup by Bangladesh’s seam bowlers. You can leave your thoughts in the comments of this article while we keep ourself busy writing some sort of… actually, we’re not too sure what you’d call it.
To quote absolutely everyone: they moved the Ashes for this?34 Appeals
Cricket needs jeopardy. Jeopardy makes things exciting.
You have jeopardy in a tournament – the chance of being knocked out – and lo, the match is exciting. Something is riding on it. Tension’s good.
You have jeopardy in an innings – the chance of being bowled out – and you get the same benefits.
Cricket is always best when wickets win a match. Test cricket is about taking 20 wickets and Test cricket’s best – but one-day cricket can also have its moments. That sense of jeopardy adds a whole extra dimension to proceedings, as we saw today.
Even AB de Villiers couldn’t save South Africa. His team again proved that other than he and Amla, they’re something of a fairweather batting side. For their part, Pakistan again proved that having two bowling attacks banned and another one injured need be no barrier to success.
But if Pakistan were the real winners, that oh-so-out-of-form side ‘cricket’ also earned a rare victory. Twenty20 is too short for wickets to be of any real concern. Surely here was proof that 50-over cricket’s niche is as a form of the game where they are at least meaningful?10 Appeals
Somewhere, in a dark, neglected, cobweb-strewn corner of the Cricinfo homepage, an article of ours was briefly accessible. You may have missed it because Mark Nicholas was hogging all the prime real e-state.
The article in question is about the format of the World Cup – same as all cricket articles these days. However, our article differs from all of the others in one crucial way. It is woven together out of our own lies rather than merely being pieced together using the lies of others. This is that article.25 Appeals
We watched a bunch of sixes today. Well, we say ‘watched’. What we actually mean is that we heard commentators overreacting to sixes while writing something. We didn’t look up once.
We live in a different world, nowadays. We’ve tried to take you back to the old one in our All Out Cricket piece about Shahid Afridi, but like the £5 base layer we use for winter cycling, it’s not an easy thing to pull off.
Either way, it’s received some positive feedback. One commenter claimed: “You actually wrote my mind out.”8 Appeals
Much as we enjoy writing about administrative staff, what they think and what they may or may not have meant when they said something in an interview, we rather feel that the World Cup is a time for writing about actual cricket.
Colin Graves has said some things, the ECB have said some different things in faceless, Borg-like fashion and Kevin Pietersen has expressed enthusiasm, as he is wont to do. While all of this may amount to something one day, it isn’t all that meaningful right now. A whole bunch of things would have to happen in the correct sequence before there could be any impact on a cricket match and lest anyone forget, cricket is about cricket matches.
Cricket-wise, South Africa’s huge score against Ireland changes nothing in our eyes. They have a couple of exceptional batsmen, some middling ones and a long tail. We still think they’re vulnerable.
Pakistan play the UAE tonight and could, quite honestly, lose. We say this only because they appear to be even worse than England and England certainly seem in the market for a mugging; ambling about the dangerous part of town with a bulging wallet tucked precariously in a back pocket.
In the other match, Australia play Afghanistan. There shouldn’t be an upset there, but it could provide some exceptionally entertaining moments.16 Appeals
In a run-chase, pressure doesn’t just come from the bowling you face. It comes from the relationship between the bowling you face and the runs you need. We haven’t yet seen England’s defence of 310, but our initial feeling is that Eoin Morgan’s belief that the bowlers were at fault for the loss to Sri Lanka is simplistic.
We saw England bat. We saw a classic one-day finish preceded by a stumblesome plateau. 28 runs were scored in 10 overs and while you do get these lulls even in these modern high-scoring days, it seemed unjustifiably quiet. Nothing happened against Angelo Mathews and Tillakaratne Dilshan for whom bowling is a secondary skill.
If Morgan himself came to the party, he arrived with an apology. He wasn’t drinking because he had work in the morning and he was really sorry but he’d also have to leave quite early. He stood in the corner for an hour, spoke to no-one and then left with 27 runs off 47 balls. It was so pointless you wonder whether England would have been any worse off if Chris Woakes had come in at five. At least Morgan could have a go at the slogging for which he is renowned if he batted at eight.
Root, Taylor and particularly Buttler engineered a strong finish and then it was over to the bowlers, but it didn’t seem to be a day for the 85mph right-arm seam bowling basket. Moeen Ali took the only wicket and was also the most economical bowler.
Referring to his attack, Morgan said: “When we are firing we are predictably good.” We felt sure he was about to follow this up with ‘but when we aren’t we are predictably bad’. He could also have gone for ‘predictable and bad’ but he opted for neither. Instead he bemoaned ‘one bad ball every couple of overs’.
Maybe he’s right – it certainly sounds like England could have fielded better – but maybe England should have made 20 or 30 runs more. Maybe that would have allowed more bad balls. Maybe that would have helped the required run-rate rise.
Or maybe it’s all an irrelevance. Maybe England could have got absolutely everything exactly right throughout this World Cup – captain, batting line-up, bowlers, ‘execution’ – and still not won it.30 Appeals
When New Zealand played Australia, the bowlers won and cricket was all the better for it. Runs are not a sensible unit of measurement when gauging the value of the ‘product’.
AB de Villiers is a genius and deserves every plaudit that comes his way, but Kane Williamson’s 45 off 42 balls pisses all over his 162 off 66 balls earlier in the week.
Okay, maybe that’s unfair because de Villiers’ knock was also match-deciding in its own way and could only have been delivered by a truly freakish talent. We’re just pointing out that in many ways Williamson’s innings belongs in the same category.
What’s the value of a six? It’s not six runs. That doesn’t explain it because runs don’t have a set value. A run takes its value from the context in which it is scored.
When Brendon Taylor hit a six against the West Indies earlier in the week, those runs represented around 1.6 per cent of Zimbabwe’s target total. Not very exciting. When Kane Williamson hit a six today, those runs represented about 4 per cent of New Zealand’s target total.
So twice as valuable? No, because we didn’t properly assess the context there. Taylor’s came in a run-chase that was always destined for failure and so, measured by what really matters, it was all-but-pointless. In contrast, Williamson’s came with New Zealand needing six runs to win, against Australia, with only one wicket in hand.
A mishit and New Zealand’s bitter rivals would have won. A four and Australia still could have won. That’s when a six is a ‘maximum’ – when it delivers maximum impact.10 Appeals
This appears to be South Africa’s thinking after picking only four proper bowlers. It should present a vulnerability, but when you then make 408, you find you have a certain amount of breathing space – perhaps even enough that you could field Jade Dernbach and still harbour reasonable hopes of victory.
AB de Villiers’ 66-ball 162 is only the latest ‘whaaat?’ innings of this World Cup. They’ve all been striking efforts, but we suspect the novelty will wear off. A lot of matches seem to be less about how many a team can score and more about to what extent they can cash in.
It’s not the same thing. The computer game analogy is being used a lot of late but it’s apposite here. This World Cup is being played on ‘novice’ with teams looking to hit ever more humungous scores. It’s not a true challenge. It’s just doing as much damage as possible when the going’s easy.
We’ve not had too many close contests in the tournament and a lot of games have been all but decided when one team has ‘gone big’. It almost seems to be the case that if a batsman gets going in the last 10 overs, there’s nothing that can be done and the match is basically over.
Hopefully we’ll get some matches where both sides cash in and we can have a little bit of tension for once. While big innings are a feature, competition is the bedrock on which sport is built.18 Appeals
Afghanistan have won their first World Cup match. It was only the fifth one wicket win in the history of the tournament. With Ireland beating the UAE by two wickets yesterday, it doesn’t need saying that the Associates have provided more than their fair share of entertainment. But we’ll say it anyway. The Associates have provided more than their fair share of entertainment.
Afghanistan were at one point 97-7 in reply to Scotland’s 210. That isn’t so much sniffing defeat as gnawing at it, covering it in spit. At this point, Samiullah Shenwari from our bizarre list of World Cup players to watch raised his hand and requested permission to attend the party. After making 96, he exited the party and left numbers 10 and 11, Hamid Hassan and Shapoor Zadran, to do all the clearing up.
This match alone would make a wonderful extra chapter to Out of The Ashes. The sequel – Back To The Ashes With You – would then see them sitting at home watching India repeatedly playing Australia in the 2019 World Cup.20 Appeals