Strauss under scrutiny as inquest begins into England's limited effort
England 229-6 Sri Lanka 231-0: The disappointing 10-wicket defeat at the hands of Sri Lanka again opens up the question of who is right man to lead squad
Monday 28 March 2011
When the history of the winter is written the weekend's events will form a large footnote. Another World Cup campaign came to a sticky end in every way for England. The players were sapped of energy, will and gumption in the stultifying humidity of the R Premadasa Stadium, and Sri Lanka dashed to an overwhelming victory in the quarter-final by 10 wickets.
So far, so predictably dreadful. But this campaign could never quite shake off the feeling that the real job had already been done months ago. Anything that happened after the Ashes were collected in such glittering style in Australia was small fry, to be appended to an asterisk somewhere on around page 255: "Later in the winter, England did not do quite so well in the World Cup."
The players wanted to win, of course, and rather fancied their chances. They had won the World Twenty20 going away from the pack last year and if they could somehow replicate the method – perfect pacing to an innings, impeccable containment when bowling, precise fielding – then anything was possible.
England never got it quite right. They won matches they should have lost and lost matches they should have won, a sure sign of a team either in a muddle or footsore. Seven of the team that were put so firmly in their place by Sri Lanka had been part of the Ashes victory and it was in Australia that they had left their heart and their soul.
Still, there will rightly be some earnest discussions about England's fifth consecutive poor showing in the World Cup. These will start, and probably finish, with the position of the captain, Andrew Strauss.
The temptation is always to drop the captain after disappointing results because that gives the impression of a clean slate, as if everything else will naturally follow. Change can sometimes be the catalyst for improvement, but England have to be careful.
That there is no obvious candidate from the present team to take over from Strauss hardly matters – another captain can always be found. It should not be forgotten, indeed it should never be forgotten, that Strauss himself took over in catastrophic circumstances a little more than two years ago when Kevin Pietersen was deposed.
Then, it was deemed vital that the jobs of Test captain and one-day captain should be done by the same man. The trouble with a split captaincy is that it can lead to a split dressing room. There is no question of Strauss leaving the Test leadership and his deputy in that job, Alastair Cook, who is so publicly being groomed as his successor, is not in the one-day team at present.
It is not impossible that the selectors may think of a straight swap – Cook for Strauss at the top of the order and as captain in the one-day team – but although fair exchange is no robbery it is no perfect deal either.
Two other candidates present themselves. Stuart Broad has many admirers but at 24 and as the opening bowler it would be asking a great deal. England missed him badly here when he was forced to withdraw because of a side strain. Graeme Swann, the cheeky chappy, is a tougher cookie than his persona sometimes permits but the freedom of his spirit would be eroded.
This is to jump too far ahead as England's coach, Andy Flower, indicated yesterday. "Straussy and I talked about this briefly when a story broke speculating about his one-day future," said Flower. "So we have discussed it and certainly he shouldn't be making any decisions right now. And he's not.
"He's got a few weeks off with his family at home and so have I. We will be discussing this subject. He's still a very important part of England's cricket future and whether that includes one-day cricket or not, let's clear our minds, have a couple of weeks away from each other and we will have a clearer idea of the situation and the way forward."
A debriefing of the winter's proceedings, to be chaired by Hugh Morris, the managing director of England cricket, will take place in early May. They will treat with merciful relief the fact that never again will England have to travel to Australia for an Ashes campaign and immediately follow that with a World Cup challenge. It is the sort of scheduling that debilitates all concerned and the cycle will change from now on with the next Australian Ashes series in 2013-14 and the next World Cup, in Australia as it happens, in 2015.
Neither Flower nor Strauss before him, in the immediate aftermath of defeat on Saturday night, tried to make that an excuse or a reason. Since the last World Cup, England have had 19 different opening batting combinations, 13 opening bowlers and five wicketkeepers. This culminated during the tournament in their appearing uncertain what their best team was. For instance, four men opened the batting in three different partnerships.
Flower said: "We could have planned better for this World Cup and I take responsibility for that. But also some of those changes come about because combinations or individuals you try out don't work. The obvious result of that is that you try different combinations. Part of the disappointment is that we've done some really good things in limited-overs cricket over the last 12 to 18 months and the Twenty20 World Cup was part of that. We wanted to bring that same attitude into the 50-over game. We haven't done it. We all know it's not just about being gung-ho. There's always a balance to be found but we were on the tentative side of that spectrum."
A few things will spring to the debriefers' minds immediately. It is time to call time on Matt Prior's one-day international career. He has had two many chances. It is time to tell Ian Bell to open the one-day batting and somehow to persuade him that he should not settle for being something less than he could be. It is time to tell Jonathan Trott to forget the detractors' comments. Trott is what he is and without his herculean efforts in the tournament England's batting would have been a bigger mess.
It is time to persuade the contrary Kevin Pietersen to stay and the blessed Paul Collingwood to go. It is time to start building now for the next World Cup so England know who should open the batting and the bowling long before. It is time for everybody to have a rest.
Up, down and round again England's roller-coaster World Cup
Beat Netherlands by six wickets
22 February, Nagpur
A spirited Dutch side almost caught England cold in the opening group match. Ryan ten Doeschate fired a career-best 119 off 110 balls before England, who had been shoddy in the field, managed to creep home in the penultimate over.
Tied with India
27 February, Bangalore
The tournament favourites posted an ominous 338 only for England to raise their game superbly. A captain's innings from Andrew Strauss of 158 and a late rally from the lower order tied the match on the last ball, from which Graeme Swann scrambled a single.
Lost to Ireland by three wickets
2 March, Bangalore
Minnows Ireland upset the odds to claim a shock win. Kevin O'Brien smashed a century from just 50 balls, hitting six sixes and 13 fours, to record the fastest ton in World Cup history. Ireland beat England's 327 in the last over to seal a momentous and unlikely victory.
Beat South Africa by six runs
6 March, Chennai
The roller-coaster continued against a strong South Africa side. Despite being bowled out for just 171, a phenomenal response from England's bowlers, including 4-15 from Stuart Broad, snatched the win which put their World Cup hopes back on track.
Lost to Bangladesh by two wickets
11 March, Chittagong
All out for a poor 225 with an over to spare, England's bowling attack again floundered against lower opposition. Bangladesh put on a valiant ninth-wicket stand to humble Strauss's side, leaving qualification for the quarter-finals out of their hands.
Beat West Indies by 18 runs
17 March, Chennai
Swann admitted he had "given the game up for dead" but a remarkable turnaround saw England clinch an 18-run win. The Windies appeared well set to win chasing 224, but succumbed to England's spinners, giving their last four wickets away for just three runs. Michael Butler
A passage from India: lessons england can bring home after tame exit
Three reasons for optimism
Perhaps Trott could have been more assertive towards the end of the innings but the critics, who seem to be growing in number, miss the point. Trott was invariably defiant in conditions of which he had no previous experience and scored five fifties at a strike-rate of 80. He had to steady the ship – to expect him to make it go full steam ahead as well is asking too much.
He might have taken more wickets than the tally of nine he finished with from his nine matches, including five against India, but his stature grew. Bowlers like Bresnan have to do a good deal of their work in powerplays when the chips are down, and he went about it in a phlegmatic way. He has had a solid winter and finishes a better cricketer than when he started it.
Far from spectacular and not playing in the aggressively measured fashion that he had demonstrated in the year before, but it was still evident that he will be a crucial part of England's plans for years. Between now and the next World Cup, when he will be 28, he has it in him to become one of the most accomplished of all limited-overs batsmen. The trick will be transferring that to Test matches – if he cares.
Three reasons for gloom
It is possible that Prior has played the last of his 68 one-day internationals, in which he has scored only three fifties in 62 innings. Brought in as a late replacement when not originally selected for the one-day squad in Australia, he never justified a faith that always seemed misplaced. There is a swashbuckling limited-overs batsman struggling to get out somewhere, but it never has and so England must now look elsewhere.
He could do almost anything he wants as an international batsman. The worry is that he will too easily settle for less than what he is capable of. This is not to denigrate his work and commitment, merely his aspiration. Frequently looked a million dollars, as frequently gave it all away. This has to stop soon and he should be persuaded, nay he should jump at the opportunity, to open the innings and go forward.
Has a star ever fallen so quickly? From Ashes hero to World Cup zero in the blink of an eye. He gave his all in Australia and there was nothing left here. Small margins count in the big time and Anderson was on the wrong side of the ledger in conditions always bound to be testing. Should bounce back.
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