England’s World Cup defence has been shambolic, to say the least, and at worst you could say it has been an utter embarrassment.
The 2019 champions have not just been losing matches, they have been absolutely hammered in most games, recalling their plumbing of the depths in previous tournaments before their short-lived white ball revolution.
Where has it all gone wrong – and did the Ben Stokes inclusion upset the apple cart?
After six games, England is rock bottom of the table, two points behind the Netherlands and four points behind Afghanistan and with the worst NRR of any side. England has not put up a fight to defend the World Cup trophy, rather merely waived the other contenders through.
Australia is up next and it is probably not a bad shout to just call the game now; the Aussies are the form team looking to avoid India in a semifinal and to also bang another nail into the old foe’s coffin (a mini, unofficial Ashes, to put it another way).
England has always been a feast or famine team in the short format to a large degree – admittedly, largely famine of late – but their fall from recent grace has been utterly apocalyptic.
There have, however, been telltale signs that all was not well.
There were problems at the outset with squad selection that brought up questions. The selections, and non-selections of Jason Roy and Harry Brook, were messy and given that the latter has now been dropped, the decision to persist with David Malan at opener instead of the tried and tested Roy looks to have been folly. Roy has been excellent for England in the past and was a large part of setting the tone in previous years.
Brook is seen as ‘the next big thing’ and as the future of English batting across the formats. His initial omission raised a few eyebrows and he appeared at the outset to be the odd man out as England attempted to shoehorn Ben Stokes back into the team after his previous retirement from ODI cricket.
It would appear sacrilege to criticise Stokes in any shape or form. An outstanding all-rounder of the past decade and a cricketer capable of winning matches and hitting heights in ways that few can dream of.
He is however currently a shadow of his former self, he is essentially playing cricket on one leg and appears to be reduced to cameos relying on his formidable and thoroughly deserved reputation.
As the world’s premier all-rounder without equal, his place in the side was guaranteed but given he cannot currently bowl effectively and his recent batting form, should his constant selection go unquestioned?
There is no doubt also that his inclusion as a specialist batsman only has affected the balance of the side and Tim Paine described his U-turn and inclusion as ‘selfish’.
For all Stokes’ heroics, there does appear to be an element of ‘me first’. He had previously stated that after the Ashes he had a firm plan to fix his troublesome knee once and for all, this it seems was pushed to one side to chase WC glory.
The likes of Joe Root and Brook committed to three-year ECB central contracts to ward off wealthy franchises, but Stokes would only commit to one year leaving his England future up in the air in the medium term also.
Now none of this is not to say that Stokes is responsible for the England debacle, plenty of others are hopelessly out of form with the bat and Jos Buttler looks anything but a leader on the field. England looks entirely rudderless.
Management must also be called hugely into question.
The issue with Stokes’ inclusion and the mess over the squad selection is the message that it sends to the rest of the team, that senior players can dip in and out as they see fit with the effect of stymieing young talent such as the aforementioned Brook and Sam Curran.
They both would have given an excellent all-rounder option in these conditions after his experiences with the Punjab Kings whilst Stokes was paid handsomely to sit on the sidelines for Chennai Super Kings before returning home early.
England is stuck with a team of thirty-somethings who are not getting any better and in several cases are already fading forces. It should be noted of course that the absence of the serially unlucky Jofra Archer is a huge loss for England on the bowling side.
Batting of course can often of course be like dominoes when things are not going well. If the openers are not functioning properly, those classy middle-order stroke makers come in early against a hard ball and walking in at 3/50 is a long reach from coming at 3/250.
The England ODI top order has given a good impression of the recent test top order piling pressure on the following batsmen rushing to get their pads on quickly.
Previous captain and proud Irishman Eoin Morgan has hinted at division or problems within the dressing room, something that coach Matthew Mott was keen to shoot down – as you would expect. Whether he and Buttler could and should survive this campaign in leadership roles looks highly debatable.
For England, the tournament is over and there is merely pride – what is left – at stake, with a tough assignment against the resurgent Aussies. There will again be talk of a white ball reset but the problem is the red ball game is hardly in rude health either.
It may well be time to cast an eye towards the younger generation – everyone seems to have gotten older at once.