England crash and burn in World Cup title defence with no quick fix in sight | Cricket - Hindustan Times
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Abject England crash and burn in World Cup title defence with no quick fix in sight

Oct 29, 2023 02:26 PM IST

England's title defence could well be the worst ever by a reigning World Cup winner in history

Shell-shocked. That probably best describes the look Jos Buttler wore, minutes after his side had been outclassed and overwhelmed by a hitherto struggling Sri Lankan side in Bengaluru on Thursday.

England's captain Jos Buttler has been left overwhelmed.(PTI)
England's captain Jos Buttler has been left overwhelmed.(PTI)

Sri Lanka, who came through the Qualifiers, had been put in their place by South Africa, Pakistan and Australia in their first three matches, their only win before facing England coming against Netherlands. They were short on confidence, bereft of several key bowlers and under a new captain in Kusal Mendis, Dasun Shanaka having flown home with a thigh injury.

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Sri Lanka’s travails were neither unexpected nor surprising. Their fall from grace has been steady, they are in the process of rebuilding.

England, the defending champions, were at the other end of the spectrum in that regard. They had a settled, stable, experienced unit, an able captain and an excellent leader, an approach to die for and a depth and all-round balance that was the envy of most teams. They arrived at the World Cup one of the red-hot favourites to go all the way, to defend the crown won on home turf in 2019 under Eoin Morgan.

But, like Sri Lanka, they too had just one win from their first four games, against Bangladesh. A spanking at the hands of New Zealand in the tournament opener could have been put down to residual rust and early-tournament jitters, but not the subsequent hammerings by Afghanistan and South Africa. Their title defence was hanging by a tenuous thread, it was do-or-die time.

England began brightly enough, 45 on the board in a little over six overs, when the wheels came off spectacularly. With returning former skipper Angelo Mathews as the talisman, Sri Lanka climbed all over Buttler’s timid group, bowling them out for 156 on a true batting deck. The surface was put in perspective by the belligerence with which the third-wicket pair Pathum Nissanka and Sadeera Samarawickrama hunted the target down, with nearly 25 overs in the bag. Sri Lanka had just done England things, leaving Buttler to lick his wounds.

Mathematically, going into Sunday’s clash against unbeaten India in Lucknow, England are still in with a shout of making the semifinals. For that to eventuate, they need a series of mini miracles to go their way. Hmmm…

Buttler was at a loss to explain how his team had made its way into this predicament. He spoke of the immense talent and experience in the ranks, of the skills and the ability he could summon. Which bewildered him even more. How could a team this gifted, this seasoned, this motivated, come so badly unstuck?

One of the many theories bandied around is that in the 15 months leading up to the World Cup, England were not able to put their best ODI side on the park even once due to scheduling issues, with matches coming thick and fast. That might have some merit, until one remembers that it wasn’t until just before the World Cup that, after a similar length of time, India were able to summon their best 50-over unit. Players are professional enough, experienced enough and well-schooled in the nuances of one-day cricket not to have to play it day in and day not, or not to have to play every single game as a unit, to come together when it matters.

England have messed up team selections repeatedly, ringing in the changes in a sign of panic and overreaction – all 15 have been fielded by choice, not compulsion. They haven’t read conditions well, fielding in the heat when they should have set targets against Afghanistan in Delhi and South Africa in Mumbai on excellent batting tracks. Buttler’s captaincy has been way off the mark, a reflection of his travails with the bat – he averages 19, has just 95 runs from five innings. Their misfiring batting has been the least productive of the big teams; five matches have yielded just one hundred (Dawid Malan) and four individual half-centuries.

The bowling has been inconsistent and singularly lacking in venom with the exception of Reece Topley, the tall left-arm quick who has returned home with a fractured finger. They haven’t had the personnel for the conditions – Chris Woakes averages 82.50, Mark Wood 77.66 and Sum Curran 70.00, with seven wickets between them – and it hasn’t helped that Moeen Ali’s off-spin has been used sparingly. Many of England’s problems have been self-imposed, which will necessitate a heavy dose of introspection when they are back home – a lot earlier than they would have imagined.

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