CWC 2019: England's Journey to being the overwhelming favourites for this edition of the World Cup
9 March 2015: It was the Adelaide Oval where a resilient 103 from Mahmudullah had taken Bangladesh to a fighting total of 275/7. With the beginning of the second innings, as the sun went down behind the clouds, so did the hopes of the England team with the fall of each wicket. When Joe Root fell in the 37th over with England still requiring 113 more, England started to believe that this would be their last day in Australian shores. And then the inevitable happened which was described aptly by Nasser Hussain on commentary after Rubel Hossain smashed the stumps of Jimmy Anderson, "The Bangladeshi Tigers have knocked the England Lions out of the World Cup."
England had been playing conservative cricket till then. It seemed like they were still stuck in the limited overs cricket of the 1990s where the batsmen thought 300 was enough. One of the main reasons was that the top order could not accelerate during the middle overs, leaving all the hard work for the lower order to provide the impetus to the innings. In the World Cup, the highest they could muster up was 309 against Sri Lanka, which was eventually chased down by latter. Their limited overs cricket was getting stale, and they required a change in the game.
Cut to June 2015. It was the start of the English Summer with England taking on New Zealand in the first ODI after the drawn Test series between the two teams. England had a new coach, a new set of openers, a new middle order and a new set of bowling options. It was the start of the first limited over series of the summer.
It was at Edgbaston where McCullum won the toss and bowled. The first ball and the new England opener walked back to the pavilion. At 50/2, at the end of the 8th over, the English fans at the ground started to think about the worst. But in walked the English skipper and combining with Joe Root, pummeled the Kiwi bowlers. Slowly, the fans found their voice. A change in the mindset of the England team was starting to get visible to the fans. A middle order collapse and England slipped to 202/6 from 180/3 at the end of 30 overs. Again the crowd sensed the worst. Joe Root had hit 108 from 74 but departed. Now it was Jos Buttler and joining him was Adil Rashid. At this point, the change in the team's mindset was becoming imminent.
The duo carted the bowlers. It was a statement from the two as Jos Buttler hit a superlative 129 off just 77 deliveries and England breached the 400 run mark for the first time. This aggressive move from England was the last thing that New Zealand expected and one could see they were shell shocked. The result? England won the match by whopping 210 runs.
The next match England narrowly missed out chasing the second highest score ever by just 13 runs at the Oval. Two matches lost in a row but the fans had a different thing on their minds. Somehow this team had started to win back the hearts of their public with their fearless game. But now the series was on the line in Trent Bridge with England trailing 1-2. This time McCullum batted first and the Kiwis put up a massive score of 349/7. England chased this score without breaking a sweat with centuries from the skipper Morgan and Joe Root. They lived to see another day.
The next match, from a dire situation at 50/5, England still chased 192 from 27 overs. The series was theirs with Jonny Bairstow taking in the applause from the crowd after hitting the winning runs and the players hugging each other in the pavilion. These scenes showed that it was more than just a series win for them. It was a statement to the Kiwis, who had smashed them in the group match of the World Cup, 3 months ago. It was a statement to the cricket fraternity.
The English Cricket had rediscovered their game. Test batsmen like Ian Bell, James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Gary Ballance had been left out of the squad and ODI specialists like Alex Hales (Not a part of World Cup squad due to failed drug test), Jason Roy, Ben Stokes, Adil Rashid had been inducted into the squad. There was a change in strategy as the top order was accelerating from the word go and the lower order was not getting burdened with doing most of the work. Players like Liam Plunkett and Sam Billings were selected who could strike the ball hard apart from being frontline bowlers.
This new team started winning now. The body language of the players changed. Australia visited their shores next. A tug of war ensued in the Ashes series where Australia were the hot favourites. England won the first test at Cardiff. Talks about getting revenge for the 2013-14 Ashes series did the rounds. Then followed the Lords Test where England capitulated to an embarrassing loss by a humongous 405 runs. Suddenly those talks stopped. England regrouped after that. England won handsomely at Edgbaston and then at Trent Bridge, by knocking out Australia for 60 in the first innings. The Ashes was theirs. The job was done. A loss followed that at the Oval but it would not dampen their spirits.
In the ODI series that followed, although England lost the series 2-3, there was a lot of fight in their defeat. They went down throwing punches. Slowly but surely, this team was shaping up for the Champions Trophy 2017.
Although there is a huge difference in the ODI format and the T20 format, both require an aggressive mindset and a calculated approach. In the T20 World Cup 2016, England blasted their way through to the finals of the tournament. In the finals, they were in a cruising mode during the second innings when they came across Carlos Brathwaite. A freak show from the man shattered the dreams of England to win a major ICC tournament just a year after the 2015 cricket World Cup. Still, it was a major turnaround for a team that was going nowhere in limited overs format just a year ago.
The team went on a winning spree. The English summer of 2016 saw Pakistan and Sri Lanka come to their shores and get trashed. England looked in a different league in those series as the juggernaut just continued to roll. England set the then highest team score in an ODI at Trent Bridge against Pakistan with Alex Hales hitting the then highest score by an Englishman in ODI cricket.
1st June 2017: The ICC Champions trophy started. England were swiping away their opponents easily. First Bangladesh, then New Zealand and then Australia. And just like that, they were in the semi-finals. They were tagged as favourites for the tournament and they were playing like one till they encountered Pakistan. On some days, Pakistan can be world beaters and unfortunately for England, it was Pakistan's day. Although England had now become a very good limited overs side, this loss showed that there were still a few chinks in their armour.
The year 2018 started on a bright note for the England team. Although they were winning games of ODI cricket, they were playing mostly at home. At least this is what fans thought. Now it was the time to be on the road. First, it was Australia. England had just lost the Ashes series 4-0. It was time to salvage some pride. In the first ODI at the MCG, a century from Aaron Finch took Australia to 304/8. Then the Jason Roy show began. Hitting the highest score (180) for an Englishman in ODI cricket, Jason Roy helped England crush Australia in the opening match, setting the template for the series as England won 4-1.
Next stop New Zealand. New Zealand gave a better fight but England were too good for them. A series win 3-2 for England. Jonny Bairstow was the highest scorer in the series with a tally of 302 runs. This series helped him book a place in the ODI setup. More series wins came as they won against India and Sri Lanka. When Australia visited their shores for a return series, they were completely blown away by the might of England. A whitewash ensued for the defending champions as they did not win a single match against England. In the 3rd ODI at Trent Bridge, England broke the record for the highest team score in ODI cricket they had themselves set two years back, by smashing 481 runs against a helpless Australian attack.
By looking at these results it does not come as a surprise that England are touted as the favourites to win the 12th edition of the World Cup. After the last World Cup, England has hit 300 runs most times in ODI than any other nation. They have also hit 400 on 4 occasions since the last World Cup. Among these 4 occasions, twice have they set the highest team score in ODI. The key to success has been that their batsmen look to take the attack to the bowlers, fearlessness can be seen in their play. Batting runs deep in their lineup, up to number 9. The bowlers look to take wickets instead of containing the batsmen. Fielding has become electric. Match winners are occupying each slot in the playing lineup.
Despite this, the team has a tendency to slip embarrassingly on some occasions. The final ODI during England's tour of Sri Lanka last year saw England concede 366 runs and then get bundled out for 132 runs. At the start of this year, during England's tour of West Indies, the ODI series was being led by England 2-1 as they went into the final match with the 3rd ODI being washed out. While the fans expected a final showdown in an immensely entertaining series, it resulted in an anticlimax. England batted first and were bowled out for 113 which was chased by West Indies (or Windies) in a little over 12 overs. But these occasions have been as rare as Sri Lanka winning an ODI match in the last two years(pun intended).
So, with the World Cup still some time away, England are regarded as the hot favourites to lift the cup along with India and maybe South Africa. But they need to ensure that these occasional slip-ups do not occur during the important games of the tournament. The journey has been long and exciting for the team and for their fans. This team has what it takes to lift the cup. All these instances start to raise a question- was the loss against Bangladesh, in Adelaide, the best thing that ever happened to English cricket? Well, the answer is coming.
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