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World Cup 2015: What's ailing England cricket?

"England’s ODI squad for the on-going Cricket World Cup is a tormented lot. They haven’t fired as one cohesive unit, they have been plagued by controversies off the field, and almost look set to exit the tournament in the group stages itself."

England have hardly looked like a top contender in this World Cup

“Nineteen, Twenty, my plate’s empty.” – Old English rhyme

Much like Frodo’s struggle to fulfill the quest of destroying the One Ring in the legendarium Lord of the Rings, England’s ODI squad for the on-going Cricket World Cup is a tormented lot. They haven’t fired as one cohesive unit, they have been plagued by controversies off the field, and almost look set to exit the tournament in the group stages itself. The setting of this edition is the same as the one 23 years ago, where the Poms made it to the summit clash – except that this time around, the Cup seems to be in a galaxy far far away.

Having finished four of their league matches, the Lions are languishing at fifth place in the standings in Pool A. Their only victory has come against Scotland – not an entirely formidable opposition compared to the Big Three in that group. At the very least, the win should have given them some hope, some measure of confidence and a spring in their step. And what did they do? They went back to their old ways against Sri Lanka, and were ruthlessly pummelled by the 1996 champions. Certainly not the kind of approach the originator of cricket was expected to take, now, was it?

Perhaps I can shed some light on the reasons for such a shambolic performance from a side which boasts of quite a few world-class players. Because England have rarely looked like a world-beating side, or even a title contender, the analysis has to be based upon quite a few parameters, and this is what I have tried to do. Below are three categories of reasons why I think the Poms are struggling for a foothold in the current edition of ODI cricket’s greatest prize:

Confounding Player Selections – Where are the specialists?

Not everyone can be an AB De Villiers or a Virat Kohli – two supremely talented blokes who have almost effortlessly mastered the art of how to play in all three formats of the game. But at the very least, the basics of how to play fifty over cricket need to be there. The approach is very much different from Test matches, and England still seem to be stuck in the white-flannels version since the beginning of time. I consider that as one of the chief reasons for their shoddy performance of late.

For one thing, you need specialists in the limited-overs form of the game. So why are the likes of Alex Hales and Ravi Bopara missing from the lineup? The former is actually quite an explosive batsman at the top of the order. He should have been made to play against Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka; England need fireworks at the top, and he’s one player who can provide the impetus in the beginning. The Powerplay overs belong to him and his aggressive, rapid scoring could help lay the base for Joe Root, Ian Bell and the rest of the middle order to contribute handsomely.

Why is Ravi Bopara shunted in and out of the side?

On the other hand, Bopara must be wondering why he nearly always gets the short shrift in One-dayers. The conditions in Australia and New Zealand are quite suited to his style of play, and his reliable medium-pacers afford skipper Eoin Morgan a magnificent bowling option. Adept at rotating strike and accelerating when needed, the Essex all-rounder should definitely be in the final XI.

Similar arguments can be made for Luke Wright, Ben Stokes, Jade Dernbach and even Boyd Rankin, their latest Irish import. Yet, who makes it to the side? Gary Ballance, who hasn’t done much since his exploits against India in the 2014 Test series. He is certainly a class player, but his game is really not suited to the quicker versions. Accumulation is often needed, yes, but not at a slow pace. I really don’t see the young southpaw holding down a permanent position in the ODI setup if he doesn’t adapt to the quicker formats soon.

Leadership Abilities Under the Scanner – Morgan needs to come good

I’ve said this before and I will say it again: I am not at all impressed with the England captain’s leadership in this tournament.To be honest, he has looked completely lost, cold and distant on the field. The runs haven’t flowed from his blade, and he simply looks like a shadow of his former self. His last ODI hundred came in Sydney in the tri-series preceding the World Cup, but since then, the only bright spot in his score sheet has been a scrappy 46 against Scotland. In England’s three huge defeats, Morgan has been completely outfoxed and outwitted by the opposition captains.

Firstly, his key players – save Joe Root – are neither providing a good start nor holding the innings together. The batting malaise that affected the Indian side during the tri-series seems to have infected the Irishman’s lot too. They went into the game against New Zealand having been bowled out 12 times in their previous eighteen matches, and just didn’t have the guts to withstand the pace of Southee and Boult.

Now, Morgan’s not the kind of person who’ll play a workmanlike innings, but when you’re also the captain of the team, it adds to the pressure of being the anchor in the middle order, and he has simply succumbed to that pressure. Perhaps a few lessons from MS Dhoni in how to soak in the pressure and get on with the job will suffice for the beleaguered skipper.

Secondly, I’m yet to see his aggressiveness in captaincy. He’s given off vibes that reek more of desperate ploys than well-planned strategies. The only positive aspect I’ve seen so far has been his faith in Steven Finn – the tall, lanky fast bowler has been outstanding with the ball till now. But Morgan hasn’t quite showed similar trust in his spearhead James Anderson (I may be wrong here). He’s got to encourage all his bowlers to give it their all, get them to bowl in tandem. It may also not be a bad move to bring in off-spinner James Tredwell, so at least the tweak department has yet another specialist instead of a part-timer like Moeen Ali.

Fearless and inventive with the blade, the Dublin native has to come out of his shell and bring in a lot more aggression and grit into his leadership. To be fair, he was handed the reins only two months prior to the quadrennial showpiece’s kick-off, and this aspect might just go in his favour when the selectors do some introspection and analysis post the tournament.

For now though, England needs Eoin Morgan the captain a tad more than the batsman, because it’s his approach to the game that will turn things around for the struggling side.

ECB’s outdated thinking processes – no guts, no imagination and no verve

 Incoming ECB chairman Colin Graves has caused flutters by suggesting that
Pietersen still has a shot at returning to the side

Paul Downton and James Whitaker have completely mishandled the Kevin Pietersen fiasco – that’s how I see things. In fact, their decision might just have been the proverbial ‘shot in the foot’. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) certainly hasn’t reaped the benefits of a change of guard, and quite frankly, Downton has just stopped short of doing a Greg Chappell by his archaic thought processes and strange ways of handling controversial topics.

Despite having apologised to the former England batsman, the current managing director of the ECB has made some really questionable decisions of late. Sacking Alastair Cook from the ODI captaincy and axing him from the team came at a time when England needed all their players to be fresh and ready to mount a serious challenge at the World Cup. Recalling Ballance to the side also has been a seriously misguided move, despite the fact that the Yorkshire southpaw hasn’t done much with the bat since then. Why is there a clear refusal to believe that the limited-overs format has changed drastically and having specialists in place is the correct way forward?

Frankly speaking, the ECB has absolutely no imagination or verve left when it comes to team selections for tournaments as key as the World Cup. Chris Read has been languishing at the fringes for many a year, despite strong performances on the county circuit. Luke Wright is yet another surprise omission. I understand their point about Test cricket being the ultimate form of the game, but focusing on just that format inevitably results in a rapid decline in the shorter forms of cricket.

Such illogical, clouded thinking has, sadly, led English cricket to be in the mess that it finds itself in. I won’t be surprised if heads roll after England’s run at the tournament ends. Already the incoming ECB chairman Colin Graves has caused flutters by suggesting that Pietersen, England cricket’s enfant terrible, still has a shot at returning to the side; it may not be a wise statement in the current climate, but it could prove to be prophetic.

England are a disappointed bunch at the moment – distracted, unfocused, and panicky. One only hopes that Morgan and coach Peter Moores are able to motivate them to turn things around quickly, otherwise they may have to wait a lot longer to win another major ICC event since the 2010 World Twenty20 triumph. Wake up, Poms!

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