In the wake of a shock World Cup defeat to Sri Lanka, Phil Walker considers whether England’s commitment to carefree cricket is becoming a burden.
Much of this tournament and its build-up has focused on the theoretical. How will England cope when the pitch is sluggish? When they lose a few up top? When they come up against a battered but proud team scrapping for their lives? Good performances – a three-for here, a getting-your-eye-in 70-odd there – have been talked about in terms of what’s to come next. Well, what’s been coming has now arrived. And the results are wild.
At a largely subdued Headingley that turned frenetic only in sync with the unravelling chaos, England were out-thought by an inspired Sri Lanka side with a thousand points to prove. Leeds may host a shimmeringly modern stadium these days, yet it’s populated by patrons who have seen too many false dawns, botched run-chases and implosions in the field to get carried away with the latest iteration.
This is a crowd, after all, that once witnessed Sri Lanka knock off 321 in 37.1 overs of an ODI innings. That one was not exactly a shock; England were then playing a different kind of game to the rest. But while the style and attitude may have advanced, and exponentially so, the anxieties remain peskily present.
A few weeks ago, in a supposedly humdrum warm-up game that was only meant to be leavened by the spiciness of the opposition, England’s openers swaggered out to knock off Australia’s 297 – a total scoffed at by the cognoscenti – lost a couple early on, and retreated into that old state where angst trumps studiousness and panic sets in. It was the absence of calm, as all this freedom congealed into a kind of garbled turmoil, that marked it. There was a run out, a stumping, and a shot from Moeen, caught in the deep with just a run-a-ball needed, that would hastily be chucked in the bin marked ‘clear out the crap before the real stuff’.
Duly, Jos Buttler, standing in as captain, shrugged that they’d been ready for the tournament to start a week ago. The message was clear: come on, forget it, let’s move on.
And so we did. We moved on, into England’s home tournament. Into the big one. The only one. Put your mortgage on them getting to the semi-finals, we said (I certainly did). Look, they score at over half-a-run-per-over faster than any other team out there!
In their second game, having swept South Africa aside, they failed to chase down Pakistan’s bloated 348, as the great unfancieds threw off their own peculiar inhibitions. It was a great game of cricket. We all tentatively declared it was ‘good for the tournament’. It was swiftly rationalised as a ‘blip’: sporting parlance for a nagging problem, but one that we’d rather not define as such.
And now this. Against Sri Lanka they just couldn’t get their heads right. There was no swagger, just lead in their shoes. In the over that clinched this one, Woakes and Rashid plodded two innocuous non-turning off breaks into the keeper’s gloves. In the nets they would smash them. Everywhere we looked, there were injudicious shots, though Ben Stokes’ preferred adjective may be somewhat fruitier and to the point.
Chief among them was Moeen again. Now Moeen is a dreamboat, an icon of sorts and a treasure of the English game, but he’s not a man you’d back in an ugly competition. There are now three examples in the last seven games of cricket where, from that pivot position at No.7, Moeen has flunked it. That slot, at No.7, in a team that goes hard from the off, is a crucial failsafe. But Moeen by nature is a dasher. Against Australia, Pakistan and now Sri Lanka, when the chase got tricky, England needed a slow-heartbeat cricketer to extract the tension from the moment, take stock, and plot the team to targets that were never remotely close to unassailable. On three occasions in seven now, they have been unable to do that.
Moeen, it should be said, is no outlier here; he is true to the team’s philosophy. All this talk of freedom has a tendency to flatten people’s minds. It’s as if they’ve convinced themselves that unbridled, untrammelled self-expression is the only way to go. It’s not. Cricket doesn’t work like that. This dogma of expressiveness is laudable on the one hand, fraught on the other. Here’s a paradox: they are shackled to all this freedom.
It’s a popular line, among the grab bag of commentary cliches, that the task of chasing large targets can ‘free up batsmen’. Yet this thinking is antithetical. Cricket requires an active mind more than anything else. The computations of a run chase are ever-evolving, requiring perpetual reassessment of target equations, field settings, pitch conditions and the like, underscored by a sense of when to go and when to throttle back, of whom to smite and whom to swerve. Cricket will never be a hitting contest. Just ask Kane Williamson.
Stokes did it very well against Sri Lanka. He now reads the game as well as anybody in this team. The thinking was sound. The pestling of aggression and abstinence was exactly what the moment required. It was, in many ways, one of his most impressive knocks for England. A real finisher’s innings. He kept his head, but he didn’t get to finish it because all around him others were losing theirs.
So England may now have to win two of their last three games. Australia, India and New Zealand, in that order, are their opponents. They will be nervous now. They won’t admit it, but they will be. And the English cricketing public will be nervous too.
They can play all their shots, and there’s a large part of all of us, the swirlingly romantic part, that wants them to stay true to this wild mercury experiment and see where it gets them. But cricket tournaments are not won by playing one way. Now is the time for cool heads. For a little more of brain and a little less of bicep.