This has been a long and deeply disappointing winter for England. All the signs are that it is about to grind on for around a week more towards a horrible end.
Their last assignment starts today when a side probably but not certainly led by Stuart Broad begin their campaign to regain the World Twenty20 they won gloriously four years ago. Already it seems that the team who triumphed in the Caribbean in 2010 going away from the pack may become the cricketing equivalent of the Boys of ’66 – forever remembered, never equalled.
Somehow, England appear to have forgotten or discarded all the good habits and smart strategies they unfurled before astonished opponents then. From the best team around they have fallen to be ranked eighth and may still be on the slide.
Perversely, they have a slender chance of qualifying for the semi-finals by finishing in one of the top two places in Group One. It is, in the way of these things at major sporting tournaments, the group of life.
A glance at the teams in Group Two explains why. That is veritably the group of death, comprising four teams who would be serious contenders for being champions, but at least two of whom must depart at the initial stage.
By contrast – and always bearing in mind that anything can happen in Twenty20 and usually does – only Sri Lanka seem viable contenders to go all the way from the teams playing their matches in Chittagong.
England’s opening foray is against New Zealand today and if they lose an early exit beckons. New Zealand look the better equipped, though they lost both of their warm-up games this week, to Pakistan and Australia, as did England. Maybe this is already the battle of the also-rans.
However, in Brendon McCullum and Martin Guptill, the Kiwis possess two of the most assured T20 batsmen – McCullum may be the best of the lot – who both found form against Australia.
But England, as they often liked to say in the good times (remember them), must concentrate on their own team. They have plenty to concentrate on, not least what their team should be.
Broad hinted yesterday that they would stick with the players who have let them down so far in losing seven of the last eight T20 matches, counting the warm-ups for this competition. That means no place for Ian Bell, who was called up to join the squad after injuries on the recent sojourn to the West Indies and has not appeared in any of the five matches for which he was available.
“With it being such a short tournament, six games to win the World Cup, you need to give guys a go and a bit of consistency in selection,” Broad said yesterday. “At the end of the day with consistent selection you need guys to perform and that’s something that the players haven’t done for the last six months, in all formats of English cricket. But I think that when players are clear in their role there’s a much higher chance of them performing and that’s something we’ve certainly learned from.”
So far, despite Broad pouring honey on the events of the past week, the top three have simply not been up to the job. At some point Bell, whose cover drives they are barely fit to watch, should have been given an outing. Now it might be too late.
Broad and Ashley Giles, the limited-overs coach who will find out soon enough if he is to be the squad’s new head man in succession to Andy Flower, are depending on players coming good on the big stage. Eoin Morgan is a case in point but England will also need Jos Buttler to be inspired by the big time.
If the top order flops, it may be all too much. But England have to remember constantly that contributions down the order count. The trick is to keep going for the 20 overs.
Ravi Bopara has swiftly become one of the side’s most important assets and if the ball does not turn much, as Broad insisted it would not, then his beguiling seam will have much to commend it. England are uncertain who should bowl at the death, another example of results undermining planning, and are wondering what spin to risk.
Broad himself insists that he will be fit despite having bowled a mere two overs in the last four matches. He is bound to be underdone, and in truth he looked it before then. It has been a long winter for him.
“It actually gave me a lot of confidence having had 12 balls in the middle,” he said. “We know how different it is bowling in nets. I’m pretty confident, no, very confident of playing a part tomorrow and in the rest of the tournament.” It did not sound that confident.
England practised with a wet ball yesterday, aware of the part that dew will play here. It will be better to bowl second, it will be imperative to score good runs batting first.
Nothing suggests that England can repeat the feats of four years ago, though for Giles’ sake you wish them well.
Broad said: “As players we’ve been put in the best possible position, we’ve been selected for a World Cup, we’ve been given all the training, the coaching, all the information we could possibly wish for, now it’s up to us to take responsibility and put those performances in.”
M J Lumb, A D Hales, M M Ali, E J G Morgan, J C Buttler (wk), R S Bopara, T T Bresnan, C J Jordan, S C J Broad (capt), J C Tredwell, J W Dernbach.
B B McCullum (capt, wk), M J Guptill, K S Williamson, L R P L Taylor, C Munro, C J Anderson, L Ronchi, J P S Neesham, A P Devcich, K D Mills, T A Boult.
Aleem Dar (Pak) and P Reiffel (Aus).
Weather Sunny with peak temperature of 31°C.
TV Sky Sports 2, 13.00-17.00
Odds: England 11-10 NZ 8-11
England’s other Group One fixtures
v Sri Lanka, 27 March
v South Africa, 29 March
v Netherlands, 31 March