What. A. Ball.
Hosts and favourites England came into this year’s event having seemingly covered all bases in their bid to capture their first 50-over crown.
They formulated a strategy that they had been nurturing over the last four years – bat the opposition out of the game. They did this by going hard at their opponents from ball one and were relentless until the end of their innings.
Starting from the top, their batting order was stacked with players who could execute on this strategy. Men such as Alex Hales, Jason Roy, Joe Root, Eoin Morgan, Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali were handpicked on their ability to cause maximum damage to the white orb over the course of their innings.
They were able to consistently post huge totals while batting first, which often proved insurmountable for the opposition but also proved equally adept at chasing down any target that they were faced with.
This tactic was so effective that it resulted in series wins against former, and current WC winners in India, Pakistan and Australia and a tied one against another former World Cup champion, the West Indies.
So successful were they in batting teams out of the contest that India’s skipper Virat Kohli jokingly remarked at the captains’ photo-shoot that some teams were in a hurry to reach Mt.500 (500 runs in an innings) faster than anyone else.
However, Eoin Morgan and his men realised that batting was only one piece of the puzzle. Bowling was the other major component they needed to quickly stock up to counter opposition batsmen who had the same idea.
All of their greatest threats – India, Australia, South Africa, had potent bowling attacks to combat the home team’s hard hitters. Even a resurgent West Indies were coming in hot, with some exciting new talent in their fast bowling armoury.
Their medium pacers Chris Woakes and Ben Stokes, with spinners Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid would be able to subdue smaller teams but against the bigger ones, they needed some real firepower.
Chris Wood was the only fast bowler in their ranks with real pace but that wasn’t going to be enough. They needed at least another fearsome bowler.
Action was required and the team management wasted no time in procuring the services of Jofra Archer and ensured that he would be part of their strike force at The World Cup.
It turned out to be a masterstroke as their attack, appearing thus far lacking in teeth, suddenly had a ‘bite’ that was as damaging as its batting one. Archer, with his electrifying pace has been the find of the tournament and has irrefutably been the difference to England’s bowling at the showpiece event.
Finally, fielding, where England had been known to drop dollies and help opposition batsmen out with confidence and runs, was a constant cause of concern.
All that changed as we saw a sharp English unit take the field, diving to stop runs and taking brilliant catches, none more so than Ben Stokes’ stunning acrobatic effort in the tournament opener against South Africa, the flying Englishman pulling off the catch of the tournament thus far.
Everything seemed to be going like clockwork as the England juggernaut began to string together impressive wins. Even a loss to Pakistan in their second match was considered a blip on the radar as the hosts were soon back to their devastating best.
The England ‘bat’tering ram mowed down opponents with relative ease, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.
In fact, so powerful and efficient was the English batting that even the suspension and subsequent withdrawal from the tournament of one its most destructive bats – Alex Hales, for use of recreational drugs – couldn’t dampen their spirits.
Even the several downpours during the tournament seemed like a mere sprinkle compared to the tempest that was The English cricket team. So comprehensive was their domination that it prompted former Three Lions player turned commentator Kevin Pietersen to quip, after yet another impressive English showing – “give them the cup”.
But just when everything seemed to be going according to plan, the hosts were jolted yet again, this time by an underwhelming and ordinary Sri Lankan side. A solitary loss early in the tournament to the ever unpredictable but talented Pakistanis is one thing but a second loss to a mediocre team, with tougher contests around the corner begged the question.
Are England really good enough to win the World Cup?
The answer is not just a simple yes or no. We need to take a deep dive into England’s history at cricket’s premier event to decode their problem.
England have been in three World Cup finals previously but have come up short each time. While they were blown away by an invincible West Indies in 1979, a ‘brain fade’ by Mike Gatting in the ’87 final when England were cruising, resulted in them snatching defeat when victory was theirs for the taking.
In ’92, the genius of Wasim Akram broke the back of their batting and the rest simply caved in. In the latter two finals, they were the firm favourites, yet they faltered in the summit clash.
So what ails the English when it comes to the World Cup? The undeniable answer is “pressure”.
England’s inability to handle pressure is what has caused them so much heartbreak at ICC events.
The pressure is undoubtedly the greatest when chasing a challenging total in a knock-out match and that had been the scenario in every World Cup final that they had contested.
It seems to be their problem in this tournament as well (even though they aren’t KO matches).
Every time the hosts have batted first, they have amassed huge totals and all but batted teams out of the contest. But when chasing, the pressure has got to them.
While they put up a valiant effort in pursuit of the Pakistanis’ huge total of 348 albeit in vain, their defeat to the Lankans’ in a meagre chase of 232 clearly highlighted England’s woes when they’re up against.
It could definitely be said that a couple of losses are bound to happen in a long tournament and England are more than likely to get it right in the remainder of their matches. But it’s not so much as the losses that raise red flags as much as it’s the manner in which they have lost them.
First of all, both were relatively weaker opponents compared to this England side. Secondly, when Pakistan attacked their bowlers from the onset, the favourites got rattled, their fielding got shoddy as they dropped sitters (despite Woakes’ four catches) and there were misfields galore.
This was in sharp contrast to their electric fielding display in the previous match. Against the Lankans as well, batsmen after batsmen followed each other back to the pavilion, on the back of some really soft dismissals, when the need of the hour was just some common sense batting.
It was also the case in their loss to Bangladesh in the 2015 World Cup that knocked them out of the tournament.
However, they have shown themselves equally susceptible to pressure when they’re up against an opposition who refuse to be intimidated.
While Ireland’s Kevin O’Brien’s innings in the 2011 edition was out of this world, the loss to Bangladesh at the same event brought this inadequacy to the fore once again.
The players go into a “brain freeze” when they’re under the hammer, as was evident when India’s Yuvraj Singh went after Stuart Broad in that memorable 2007 T20 World Cup clash between their sides.
Six deliveries were bowled in the slot for the destructive left-hander to deposit each one of them into the stands. No variations in terms of slower balls or slower ball bouncers were even attempted.
It was again in evidence in the 2016 T20 World Cup final. With 19 runs needed, Stokes who had until then been immaculate with his yorkers in the tournament, all of a sudden found himself at the receiving end of Carlos Brathwaite’s massive blade.
Ball after ball of attempted yorkers went sailing into the night sky. As the West Indian used his long reach to get under balls that only missed their mark by a fraction, and send them soaring over the boundary, Stokes ‘froze’ and continued to dish out more of the same without any attempt to mix it up.
England ended up losing the match and trophy, a trophy which should have been theirs. The only notable exceptions in World Cups when The Three Lions bucked this trend was when they defeated arch rivals Australia to win their only world title to date and be crowned 2010 T20 World Champions, and then again in the 2011 World Cup when they managed to pip the South Africans at the post, winning by 6 runs.
But unfortunately they have ended up on the wrong side of the result more often than not.
As Al Pacino so famously stated to Keanu Reeves, a hotshot lawyer who couldn’t lose a case, in the movie The Devil’s Advocate – “Pressure, it changes everything. Some people, you squeeze them, they focus. Others fold. Can you summon your talent at will? Can you deliver on a deadline? Can you sleep at night?”
England will not win the World Cup unless they cover this base as well – deal with the dreaded ‘P’ factor and conquer it.
They will have to contend with two kinds of pressure at the event. First – the external – from their opponents who will be gunning for them as well as the expectations of a nation to bring the cup home for the very first time.
The second – the internal – the expectations the players have from themselves, knowing that this could be their best chance to seal their legacies in immortality as World cup winners, while being fully aware that this opportunity may never come again in their playing careers.
For them to triumph, they will need to embrace pressure, look at it as a privilege rather than a burden and treat it as an ally instead of an enemy. There is a lesson to be learnt here for the hosts from the old enemy Australia.
The Aussies have mastered the art of handling pressure, which is clearly evident from their five World titles. All previous winners too have exemplified this trait on their way to the title.
It seems Kohli was right, when at the photo-shoot he continued to say, that even, scores of 250 odd will be challenging towards the later stages of the tournament when the ‘pressure’ will be dialled up and the team with the ability to handle that pressure the best, will put themselves in the prime position to win the trophy.
Therein lies the answer and solution to England’s problems. Talent and skill is a given at this level but can they handle the pressure when the heat is really on?
When squeezed, can they ‘focus’ or will they again ‘fold’? Can they summon their talent at will and when they need it the most? Can they deliver on the biggest stage of all?
Can they stay calm and sleep at night? In the end it is their ability to answer these questions in the affirmative that will ultimately determine whether the favourites finally cover themselves in glory or end yet another World Cup campaign in bitter disappointment.