England’s World Cup capitulation is not easily explained. I suspect the combination of factors will defy a simple solution and anyone who claims to know all the answers is probably misguided. Or Geoffrey Boycott.
We can point to any or all of the following: the wrong county structure, uncompetitive county one-day competition (including playing the wrong number of overs for four years recently), the lack of a franchised T20 competition, a World Cup mental block, no left-arm seamers, no left-arm spinners, no express pace bowlers, no-one who can bowl Yorkers, persistence for too long in picking the likes of Bell and Cook when other countries were picking the likes of Warner, Finch, Miller, Roussow etc, not introducing power hitters like Maxwell, somehow taking natural talent and flair and homogenising it through the prescriptive coaching machine, not allowing international players to play county cricket, replacing the desperately out-of-form captain with a desperately out-of-form captain, playing a warm-up series on completely different pitches to what we’d find at the World Cup, shambolically ditching arguably our best batsmen for reasons still not yet clear, a county coach rather than an international one, a muddled vision, a hopeless ECB hierarchy, unconscious and debilitating post-colonial guilt…(ok, that one might need further consideration) – and I’m sure there’s more. Feel free to add to the list by writing a comment below.
Why can’t our players just play like Australian or New Zealand or Sri Lankan or Indian players? Just smash it to the fence, bowl yorkers, catch everything. Somehow freeing themselves from the shackles of doubt, uncertainty and fear just doesn’t seem to come naturally to England players.
Unfortunately it’s far more complicated than saying ‘just play with no fear’. It’s like telling the arachnophobe not to fear spiders. They might know a particular spider can’t do them any harm but their way of being is not a rational construct. Knowing something only gets you so far. (By contrast, being a know-it-all gets you to be editor of the Daily Mirror). In the same way, until a player, or we as a nation, understands why they play with fear, they cannot be expected to simply overcome it.
At the moment we have an awkward middle ground. We hate the player (yes, KP I’m looking at you) who says after holing out to long-on and throwing the game away, ‘that’s just the way I play’ yet we laud the likes of Warner, Maxwell, McCullum for their no-fear approach to the game which appears to involve very similar risk. (And to be fair to KP, there were times towards the end of his career where he did try to rein it in for the sake of the team and then got criticised for not playing his natural game. Sometimes you really can’t win.)
The commentator on the radio during the game against Bangladesh exhorted Morgan to play with no fear, at which point he deposited the ball down deep-square leg’s throat. A fearless shot. And a dreadful one. Utterances of this banality add nothing to our understanding of the highly complex and utterly debilitating mindset England have got themselves into.
We tell our players to ‘express themselves’ but I have no idea what this means, and my guess is that the players aren’t too sure either. It’s one of those phrases that has entered the lexicon, been used until it is but a husk of a word devoid of the marrow of meaning and now floats about, falling off the tongues of captains and coaches who can’t be bothered to think of anything better to say. See also: ‘put them under some pressure’, ‘you’ve got to back yourself’, ‘we’re playing the right brand of cricket’ and ‘he hasn’t hit his straps’.
When Peter Moores got the job again, I was perfectly prepared to give him another chance. But now I’m starting to believe there really is something in this perception of him being too much of a stats man, a pre-planned, inflexible, stats-rule kind of coach. When questioned about this approach, he always utterly refutes any claim that he is too stats focused. Then straight after the Bangladesh match– which presumably he had been watching – he was asked for his view on what went wrong and he said “We’ll have to analyse the game data”. Oh lordy. Mind the petard on your way out Peter.
I don’t want my coach hunched over a computer or wheeling out percentages. I want him to watch the game, understand it, spot patterns, strengths, weaknesses. To look at his players, understand them too and what it takes to allow them the freedom needed to play with pleasure, with passion and with brilliance. To only use stats to add to his intuitive knowledge, not as the source of all knowledge, inherently second-hand, filtered and inferred. To make every interaction with the players count. To inspire. To be a presence. To be a leader.
England players have forgotten both how to play on instinct and also how to think for themselves. If you come off the field and wait for one of 17 support staff or a computer to tell you how you did, then you’ve stopped thinking and you’ve stopped reacting to the situation. How can we expect players to think on their feet in the middle of a match if they have to be told what to think by a computer programme (or its cipher, Moores)? This is a game played on a pitch not on a computer. Let’s replace artificial intelligence with the real thing.
I know it’s easy from the sidelines but when so many people can see the problems but Moores seemingly cannot (dropping Taylor from no.3, bringing in Ballance, not playing Hales, not putting Buttler up the order etc), surely it’s time to ditch the laptop and just watch the game. The way Moores watches cricket is like spending your holiday looking at all the sights through the viewfinder of your phone. Put the phone down and soak in the big picture.
So, what next? I imagine someone – probably Colin Graves – will announce a ‘root and branch’ review of the system, especially one-day cricket. He’ll announce it like it’s a bold new idea and be hurt when no-one jumps up and down with excitement and gratitude. I don’t know if Moores and Morgan will carry on but I’d be surprised if there weren’t casualties somewhere among the hierarchy. Downton isn’t exactly sitting pretty. If I were looking to ‘take the positives’, I couldn’t think of a single one Downton has brought. County one-day cricket will have to change, I think, and T20 might do too.
But these things will take time. In the meantime, what are we going to do about our team? Well, it really is the perfect opportunity to be radical.
The thing is, when England pick what they believe is their best, most experienced, balanced side we supporters tend to watch their games through the lens of positive expectation because, frankly, we are England supporters and want them to do well. Even in this World Cup after thrashings by Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka, I was looking forward to England making the quarters and then a couple of upsets and then…well. But when England experiments with the side, we expect the worst and are quick to point it out when it happens. We ask why Bell isn’t in the side and why Stokes is (well, some people do anyway). We crave familiar mediocrity rather than the challenging sight of talented players learning on the job, and mostly losing. But the fact is, whoever is picked, the side mostly loses. So let’s get radical.
Ditch: Morgan, Anderson, Broad, Ballance, Bell, Bopara, Finn, Jordan, Tredwell.
Choose players who look like they might have a bit about them: Root, Moeen, Stokes, Woakes, Taylor, Willey, Hales, Gidman, Vince, Roy, Trego, Rashid, Footit, Mills, Dunn.
Then give these players a couple of years to play. Expect them to lose, rejoice if they win. Expect them to be exposed, enjoy seeing them defy the odds. Let them play without expectation.
And if this frightens you off, remember these stats: England’s leading wicket-taker this World Cup is Chris Woakes with five wickets in five games at an average of 46.80. Stuart Broad? Three wickets at 79. James Anderson, our highly-regarded, best in the world, king of swing? Four wickets at 57. Two against Scotland, two against Bangladesh. Moeen Ali had England’s best bowling economy rate – 5.28 – while there are 44 other bowlers at the tournament with a better economy rate.
In a tournament where 300+ was commonplace and 400+ seen a number of times, we had just two batsmen scoring at a run a ball – Moeen and Buttler. Elsewhere there are 47 other players with a SR over 100, seven of them in the Australian side.
To recap, we spent years planning, five months playing dozens of ODIs in preparation and took our very best squad to the World Cup and were ignominiously dumped out at the stage it was meant to be impossible to be dumped from. Why not give a team of greenhorns a go?
It’s an interesting exercise to go back to my pre-World Cup blogpost ‘Yeah but no but yeah but’ where I looked first at the squad as positively as possible, then more negatively – or as we were to later find out, realistically. Don’t bother with the positive list but have a look at the other. I’d say only Buttler and Root failed to live down to expectations.