Why England's Ashes gladiators are being put to the sword in World Cup

Expecting Strauss’s men to peak again so soon after the series Down Under now appears unrealistic, writes Stephen Brenkley
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The Independent Online

England lost their World Cup match against Ireland because they thought they had won it. They were still 118 runs ahead when their opponents lost their fifth wicket in Bangalore on Wednesday evening. The match was in the bag. It was virtually possible to see the words "ain't nothing gonna stop us now" forming on the fielders' lips.

A bludgeoning whirlwind in the shape of Kevin O'Brien stopped them. England had fatally relaxed, thinking they were home, and when they tried to find something extra again it was not there and it was too late.

Call it arrogance, or expectation, or loftiness, call it what you will. There were plenty ready to say that England had grown much too big for their boots, that they were full of it, after their bewildering three-wicket defeat in the Group B match.

Nobody should doubt that England played shoddily. They scored 327, which might sound reasonable but they had put themselves in a position where they should have made 370 and then the game truly would have been out of Ireland's reach. That was the first mistake. The second was the number of dropped catches, five in all, the most crucial being that of the new hero himself when he was on 91 and Andrew Strauss, England's captain, put down a steepler.

The third was the bowling, which never recovered after being disdainfully treated in the second powerplay. Men who had performed with surgical accuracy in Australia only weeks ago were now inches away from their correct mark and too often trying to bowl the wrong ball at the wrong time.

Before England are written off as a bunch of ne'er-do-wells and no-hopers and all the gloss is removed from an epic Ashes victory, it deserves saying that O'Brien played an astonishing, unrepeatable innings. Such occurrences are the lifeblood of sport.

But England are not the team they were in Australia and Australia is the problem here. Ten of the team that lost at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium on Wednesday night in an atmosphere that was ultimately every bit as vibrant as when it was packed to the rafters for the tied match between India and England last Sunday played some part in the Ashes victory.

These players are being expected to reach a peak for the two most significant events in their sport in the space of weeks. It is not entirely dissimilar from asking an Olympian who trains to reach a point of perfection every four years to do it again less than 12 months later. It is the last time they will have to go from Ashes to World Cup because the cycle is changing but it may be too late.

England are not necessarily physically tired and nor are they mentally drained. As Graeme Swann, whose spell of 3 for 47 seemed to have put Ireland out of the match, said yesterday: "There is an element of it somewhere, but that certainly is not an excuse we use because if you say you're tired, there would be a public backlash and rightly so because we are paid good money to do a job we love."

South Africa and India, let it not be forgotten, were engaged in a grand tussle for No 1 in the world when England and Australia were entangled. It is South Africa, looking titanic at present, who lie in wait for England in Chennai on Sunday.

Something has gone missing on the road from Australia to India (via England for three nights) as has been evident in all three matches here. England give the impression of not expecting anything they have not earned and the mantra of Andy Flower and Strauss during their tenure as coach and captain has been of individual responsibility within a team framework. That reached its apogee during the Ashes and it may be that those individuals simply cannot summon it all up again so soon.

Batsmen, bowlers, fielders are not thinking straight enough. The margins are fine in top-level cricket – Strauss had caught that high catch off O'Brien only for it to ease agonisingly out again as he landed on the ground – and to make up the gap England have to work harder than they have ever done before. It may be beyond them.

But there is another nagging possible contributory factor, of course, and it is one that has affected England Ashes-winning teams of the recent past. When England squeezed home in the momentous series of 2005 they were filled with expectation of getting better and storming the world. It never happened; no combination of the 12 men who appeared in that series ever took the field for England again.

England, make no mistake, won wonderfully in the Australian Tests. There is equally no doubt that they took their foot off the gas in the one-day series that followed. Is it possible they did so assuming they could swiftly regain the form and cohesion which had taken them so far only to find it is not that straightforward?

Swann, rightly giving O'Brien all the dues he merited, insisted yesterday that England could still win this World Cup. They can, they almost certainly will not now.

England's exhausting winter

* England's slump in form could be down to their busy schedule. The mentally and physically draining winter has seen Andrew Strauss's side play 24 matches since the beginning of the Ashes tour in November.

England's hectic winter

5-7 Nov 2010 Tour match v W Australia 11-13 Nov Tour match v S Australia

17-20 Nov Tour match v Australia A

25 Nov-7 Jan Five Tests v Australia

10 Jan Tour match v Prime Minister's XI

12 and 14 Jan Twenty20s v Australia

Between 16 Jan and 6 Feb Seven ODIs v Australia

16 Feb WC warm-up v Canada

18 Feb WC warm-up v Pakistan

22 Feb World Cup v Netherlands

27 Feb World Cup v India

2 March World Cup v Ireland

And the summer is no easier...

26 May-9 July v Sri Lanka:

Three Tests, one Twenty20 international and five ODIs.

21 July-16 September v India:

Four Tests, one Twenty20 and five ODIs.