England, who began the World Cup with expectation thrust upon them as hosts and favourites, started the tournament well against South Africa before coming unstuck at the second hurdle when they lost to Pakistan.
Full-scale disaster was averted when they comfortably took care of a resourceful but under-powered Bangladesh, and should they win their next match against West Indies on Friday they will be in excellent shape to qualify for the semi-finals with Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, the two weakest teams in the competition, their opponents next week.
They sign off the marathon round-robin with tough fixtures against Australia, India and New Zealand by which time they will hope they have recovered all the swagger that they entered the tournament with. That way they can enter the short knockout phase with genuine self-belief that this is their
One significant issue of concern remains. England have not settled on a number one starting side and really need to do so because most of the bowlers wake up each morning with no real idea if they are going to be picked for the next fixture.
For match one against South Africa, England left out the raw pace of Mark Wood, who was admittedly under a bit of a fitness cloud. Then, perhaps seduced by the success obtained by aggressive fast-bowling tactics by various teams in the early matches, they brought him into the side at the expense of Liam Plunkett for match two. This triggered alarm bells because Plunkett has been an ultra-reliable wicket-taking option in the middle overs and when really on song he is only a little shy of Wood [if not Jofra Archer] on the speedometer.
When Wood outperformed the other bowlers against Pakistan, he clearly had to be retained, but England then elected to drop one of their two spinners, Moeen Ali. Their balance, whatever the pitch conditions, when they go into matches with five seam-bowling options and one spinner seems to be suspect. Adil Rashid much prefers having Ali in the same team and Ben Stokes needs to be trusted as a genuine fourth seamer, not almost hidden out of the bowling strategy until more than half the overs have been bowled.
The way forward is to bench Chris Woakes, who offers less pace than Wood, Plunkett and Archer. Woakes was the only England bowler who came in for punishment at the hands of the Bangladeshi batsmen. Removing him would allow for both spinners to play and I would strongly promote the theory that a bowling attack with a 4-2 split favouring seam as opposed to 5-1 with a single slow bowling option is pretty much the way to go in any conditions that England is liable to throw up.
Woakes’ economy over the first three games is 7.71 which is dangerously high and he has taken just three wickets. The other England seamers are outperforming him by some distance in every measure.
Best of them all, and firmly justifying his hurried entry into the England team, is Archer. He was hit for two sixes by Pakistan when trying his slower ball, which is poorly disguised at this stage of his career. He needs to concentrate on bowling fast and straight and he will get wickets. In fact, he already has six of them in this World Cup at an average of 22.50, an economy of 5.22 and with a strike-rate of 25.8 balls per wicket. Archer is doing very nicely with his enviable ability to find extreme pace from the gentlest of run-ups and his temperament looks good too.
It really seems to defy the laws of physics that he can generate so much zip without bending his back but it bodes incredibly well for a future across all formats. Certainly, against South Africa and Bangladesh, he never gave the batsmen a moment’s respite and I expect him to prove a real handful against West Indies on Friday. It’s a contest to look forward to considering Archer, Barbados born and with a Bajan mother, could easily have chosen to play for the West Indies instead.
He is one of the four totemic players that England will be relying on throughout the long weeks of this tournament to wrest control of matches and get them over the line when the chips are down. I place Jos Buttler, Jason Roy and Stokes in this group too. These are players who one can expect to be vying for spots in those composite XIs where they choose the outstanding stars from all the teams and make up a fantasy team based on their exploits.
Buttler the key
Buttler’s reputation has been built on some of the most destructive innings this format has ever witnessed. His name features seven times among the list of 126 ODI centuries scored off fewer than 80 deliveries. For someone in the middle of his career, this is pretty incredible. For context, AB de Villiers has 13 of them but Sanath Jayasuriya just eight, Mahendra Singh Dhoni six, while Virat Kohli and Chris Gayle can count a mere three each.
For all that he is essentially a muscle hitter, Buttler is also very astute in batting according to the match situation and the location of fielders. If he has any weakness, it is perhaps against high-quality spin at the very start of his innings but he would not be alone in this regard. No chase is really out of England’s scope until he is dismissed. It was only when he fell late on in England’s defeat in Nottingham last week that Pakistan fans could finally relax.
Roy is a confidence player, with outstanding hand-eye coordination and an ability to generate surprising power without much backlift or follow-through. He has gradually become more patient through the years he has represented his country, though he remains happier if purring along at somewhere approaching a-run-a-ball, even at the very early stages.
He fell early against Pakistan, but produced a match-winning 153 in the Bangladesh match, an innings marked in its early stages by his single-minded determination to avoid the temptation of hitting Shakib Al Hasan against the spin and over to the leg side. Instead he sought out the gaps between the fielders in the ring on the off-side, and though it took him a while to get it right once he did it was an effective ploy and all the while he was also getting his eye in against Bangladesh’s other, less dangerous bowlers.
In the first 10 overs, Roy will naturally score faster than most of the other top openers in this World Cup – Rohit Sharma, David Warner and Gayle – and this is what makes him so dangerous. When he fires, England are most of the way to finding the kind of platform they need in any given game.
Finally, we come to Stokes. There are times he can go through a match almost anonymously, but he tends to do something of note – a brilliant catch, an incisive bowling spell, a 30-ball fifty studded with huge shots – that gets the crowd on their feet and pumps up the rest of his teammates. England count on him to provide the energy when fuel reserves are flagging elsewhere. He frequently is only too happy to oblige.
England are going okay. Everyone appreciates the transformation they have gone through since the 2015 Cricket World Cup. Now they must show they can do more than look pretty – they have to produce those killer, ruthless performances when it really, really matters. That way, they might just finally win a World Cup after five painful decades of missing out.
Oliver Brett is the author of The Alastair Cook Story, a brand new biography of the record-breaking England batsman. It is available to order now.