ICC World Cup 2019: Crunch time for Morgan & Co
This is starting to get interesting. The burden of favourites’ status has weighed heavily on England’s shoulders and Joe Root, not captain of course in this format but a leader and key player, has already said that the last two group matches for his team are in effect quarter-finals. To use Michael Atherton’s word from his commentary during the Aussie encounter, things will be getting “twitchy” in the England camp. We might have to save “desperate” for later.
Their aim, as for all the top sides, was to make sure of a semi-final place with time to spare, to cruise into that top four at the same time as building confidence for the ultimate pressure games at the end of the tournament. So much for that plan—it’s been nicked by Australia and now India.
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It is why England’s legion of supporters will be worried about Eoin Morgan’s team’s mental health. I have said it before and will say it again: Morgan himself has all the steel, all the strength of mind and purpose, that one could ask for. He could walk into an X-Men movie without costume or make up the day he retires from cricket and not be out of place.
Despite the setbacks I still think Morgan is an outstanding leader but his greatest challenges lie ahead and are staring him in the face right now. The next week, the next two matches (four if he’s lucky) will define him as either the first man to lead England to World Cup glory, or he can join the long list of those who failed. It’s now in his hands and his team’s.
Defeats such as the ones that England have allowed to happen in these last weeks are insidious. Pakistan put enough runs on the board to challenge England’s liking for a chase and despite two men making hundreds, they fell short. England know full well that they should have beaten Sri Lanka in another chase. To fail so badly against Australia in all departments was depressing; not only has the need for points become so much more pressing, but mistakes are no longer just mere aberrations—and thus survivable—but are in danger of becoming habit-forming, and that is so much more dangerous.
Worms of doubt burrow into players’ brains and tinker with the instinct that is the best players’ greatest strength. In a game where, as a batsman, 0.45 of a second is all you have in which to make key decisions, the moment you actually have to stop and think is the moment that you run out of, well, moments.
“Fearless cricket”, which is what England have aspired to and largely achieved for the last four years, is where instinct is all and where decisions are made quickly and with confidence. It can be a batsman playing awesome shots but equally so it can be a Behrendorff, a Starc, a Bumrah, a Shami (and what a contribution he has made since his recall) or whoever with a new ball in hand deciding to give that ball another yard of length at the right time to give it its best chance of doing some damage. That is my definition of confidence and fearlessness and in the end, even though a batsman’s hundred might catch the eye and win a man of the match award, it will be a bowler’s genius that might well win one of these teams the World Cup.
For England winning the toss against Australia should have brought an advantage yet the white ball attack fell into the same trap as has the red ball attack, which in similar situations in recent years has failed to hit the right, full length with which to best exploit conditions. Broad and Anderson failed in that way a couple of seasons ago at Trent Bridge against South Africa and the new ball was similarly wasted against Australia in Adelaide in the last Ashes series. Anyone watching from a safe distance could tell that the lengths were wrong yet it seems it can take a while for the penny to drop out in the middle, by which time it is too late.
The fact that Behrendorff and Starc immediately showed the error of England’s ways by pitching fuller and as a result struck quickly and effectively just added salt to the wound and the pressure was on. The ball that Shami speared through Shai Hope’s defences was in the same category.
With experienced bowlers one tends to feel that the blame lies with them.
When you have someone as new to international cricket as Jofra Archer, it needs a captain to step in and give both instruction and encouragement to make a change. As it happened, Archer was less at fault than Woakes and Wood.
But at the end of it, if one side is 123-1 in 23 overs and the second side is 26-3 and then 124-5 in 28, 95% of the time it does not take Pythagoras to work out which one is the likely winner.
Eoin Morgan’s defence of his bowlers at the end of a shocking day was that he felt that they had passed the bat a lot and had been unlucky and, in mitigation, there were the half chances that slipped through fingertips that could have made a difference. But the evidence is there in front of all our eyes that the fuller length could and did make a difference to the outcome of the game. The whole point of employing analysts in this modern era is to be able to pre-empt occurrences like this but the reason the captain is paid infinitely more is that he is the man who has to assess and respond to a situation on his own out in the middle.
For Virat Kohli, the situation is very different. Things are going his way, such as the missed stumping that gave MS a life at Old Trafford against the West Indies.
However, it was a mighty fine all round team performance that saw India trounce a side that promised so much more at the top of the tournament. There are no worries now about qualification so for India it is about keeping the momentum going and working on the little extra percentages that can make them better and stronger still for the semi-final.
No captain, no coach at this stage would advocate taking the collective foot off the gas and the Indian engine is firing on all cylinders, running very smoothly. There is one thing that could free up English minds right now; that this is no time to be timid. They know that, at their best, they can beat India but I have to say that I would rather be Virat than Eoin at this moment.