England are determined that by the time of the 2019 World Cup in their own country they will have built a team to take on the planet. It is a natural, worthy aim but unfortunately it is not much use in addressing the difficulty of the here and now.
Their 2015 campaign starts next Saturday with a match against the favourites, Australia. Optimism about their chances then, or in the weeks beyond, continues to prove elusive.
There is no question that England have improved since the turn of the year under Eoin Morgan, but nothing they have done suggests any sort of permanence in the competition. The batting order, capable of being formidable, remains brittle when the heat is on, and while the bowling might have regained a cutting edge at the start of an innings, it is worryingly vulnerable in the death overs.
Any rational assessment must conclude that their best chance of defeating Australia is that Australia are due to lose, which is not the most solid of reasons. Since being beaten by Sri Lanka two years ago, Australia have lost only two of 20 completed ODI matches at home, one to South Africa in a tight three-match series, another to England amidst a 4-1 drubbing.
England have lost 14 of their most recent 16 matches in Australia, the wins coming in heavily losing series, and 26 of the past 31. To prevail now, England will have to be at their absolute peak, Australia somewhere below theirs. England may be learning fast but the fear is that the rapid advances in the 50-over game, promoted by a combination of changed rules and altered mindsets in a new generation, have passed them by for too long.
In sacking their captain, Alastair Cook, only two months before the start of the competition, England took a bold, decisive step. But it is hard not to think that three years – during which Cook took them to the world No 1 ranking and to the final of the Champions Trophy – had been wasted.
Cook’s removal meant that only when the squad arrived in Australia did England alight on their opening partnership. It had no room, though, for Alex Hales, who is capable, like a few Aussies, of shifting the balance of games quickly. But then England also found it within their hearts to overlook Ben Stokes, which few in Australia can credit.
On England’s ill-fated tour a year ago, Stokes was a rare success, a beacon for the future. True, he took time to rediscover his most swashbuckling form after infamously breaking a hand when lashing out at a dressing room locker during a limited-overs match in the West Indies in April, but it is hard to avoid concluding that England do not know how to assimilate his undoubted talent.
In 19 ODI innings Stokes has batted four times at three, three at five, two at six, four at seven and six at eight, which is much too low. Last week, playing for the England Lions in South Africa, he made 151 not out from 86 balls with 15 sixes, nine of which came from the last 15 balls he faced.
Perhaps it is in England’s collective psyche to distrust, or at least be reluctant fully to embrace such mercurial players. But to have a chance of defying the prognosis of the World Cup they will need game-changers, men who can seize an innings by its scruff. The trick is to find the right balance. Not everybody can come out slugging (Ian Bell remains a class act) but England have erred on the side of caution for too long.
Their bowling lacks a certain something, in particular a left-arm quick. Australia are the more potent for having a brace of them, both of them Mitchells, Johnson and Starc, who can swing the ball late at high pace.
It is no coincidence that in the only global limited-overs tournament won by England, the World Twenty20 of 2010, one of their chief assets was the left-arm seamer Ryan Sidebottom. For most of last year they hoped that Harry Gurney might fit the bill, only to conclude that he was not quite up to it. If Jimmy Anderson remains a force with the new ball, and if Steve Finn can complete his rehabilitation by recapturing his pace and bounce, England may be able to compensate and go beyond the quarter-finals, which looks their best shot.
If it is true that Australia are indeed due to lose and England are the team to beat them next Saturday, anything is possible.Reuse content