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World Champions missing! Cricket's biggest mystery unfolding in India; is Jos Buttler even listening?

Oct 27, 2023 07:26 AM IST

An imposter dressed as England has shown up at the World Cup 2023, for what it's worth.

It's done and dusted! England are all but out of the World Cup 2023. Forget the mathematics, permutations, combinations, Pythagoras theorem, BODMAS, NRR. Fall back on whatever you'd like to but England's World Cup title defense is all but over. When Jos Buttler, prior to the start of the tournament, said 'we aren't here to defend anything', he should have chosen his words more wisely. Less than three weeks later, their campaign in the world's biggest cricket tournament finds itself on life support, with a red-hot Team India likely to pull the plug on it Sunday. Just the plain irony that a team which revolutionised ODI, Test and T20 cricket in the last four-odd years and emerged as double World Champions, is effectively the first one out, is pretty much a kick in the gut.

England captain Jos Buttler is running out of ideas.(Reuters)

A shocker against Afghanistan, a hammering at the hands of South Africa and now getting completely outplayed – with a landslide margin – by a Sri Lankan team that had to win the Qualifiers to make it to the World Cup. England are undercooked, deflated, demoralised, injury-ridden and have lost the winning approach that was so beautifully cultivated under Eoin Morgan.

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For the second time this World Cup, England have plummeted to the bottom two. This is their fourth defeat in five matches – and a fifth straight against a team that possibly has the weakest bowling line-ups among all, Sri Lanka. At a venue where anything less than 350 is looked at with the corner of an eye, England, the master of scoring big totals – they have scored the three-highest ODI totals in history – were expected to take the bull by the horns in Bengaluru, but ended up waving the red rag instead. England's 156 all out is the lowest ODI total ever in 50 overs at the Chinnaswamy.

Absence of Jason Roy and the Stokes conundrum

Jason Roy's absence has left a noticeable void in the top order, with Dawid Malan currently taking on a more conservative role. While Malan has delivered runs this year – 811 from 14 games at 62.38 – he's a far cry from the dynamic force that revitalised England's campaign during the 2019 World Cup. The buck doesn't stop there. Joe Root, stationed at No. 3, is also playing anchor, and it's puzzling that Harry Brook, who seemed like a potential solution for England's top order, can't secure a spot in the XI.

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Ben Stokes, coaxed out of retirement, missed the first two games, and didn't get a chance to either bat or bowl in the next two, leaving many to ponder if it was worth it – visuals of him puffing in an inhaler during practice were hardly encouraging. Buttler, still hailed as England's greatest-ever white-ball cricketer by many, has fallen far short of his IPL form. A colossal letdown as batter and leader has left England questioning whether No. 5 is the right place for him.

What role does Moeen Ali, 36, have in this team? What's up with Liam Livingstone? For all his exploits at The Hundred and the IPL, yesterday (October 26) was his Glenn Maxwell moment. The bowling is jarred; without Jofra Archer, and Chris Woakes missing rhythm. Problems are everywhere, but the real prognosis lies between the ears. England have not been able to replicate the success template they enjoyed for 8 years which won them two World Cups in three years, and most importantly, are living in the bubble believing this is the same team which won the Cup four years ago.

ODIs not important for England

Why, what and how? Let's try to get to the bottom of this abject unravelling. This is a team that doesn't prioritise ODI cricket. Leading up to the World Cup, England played 13 one-dayers in 2023. In comparison, India have played 21, New Zealand 17, Pakistan 16. Only Australia, with eight and South Africa with 10, have played fewer. The growing obsession with The Hundred and the preference for Test cricket further illustrates the shifting landscape. Since July 14, 2019, England have played 56 Tests and 47 ODIs, sans the five matches at the World Cup. To put it in perspective, the current table leaders, India, have taken part in 65 ODIs during the same period. Interestingly, while some voices in the British media proclaim the death of ODIs, it's becoming evident that England, with the support of teams like Afghanistan and the Netherlands, is injecting vitality into the format through a series of surprising outcomes.

The hero of the 2019 World Cup final, of the 2022 T20 World Cup final, Stokes isn't bowling. In the previous World Cups, Stokes was pivotal in balancing the side. In his presence, England find themselves in a no-man's land. They're in a situation where they seem to face adversity regardless of the path they choose with their most talismanic cricketer. While England desperately require his batting prowess, as exemplified by his crucial 43, they struggle to compensate for his absence as a bowler. The Stokes conundrum is a bit similar to India's Hardik Pandya dilemma. In Hardik's absence, India opt for an extra batter and a bowler. The only difference is that their top order is scoring centuries and the bowlers are bagging five-wicket-hauls.

To realise where they've missed a valuable opportunity, England need not look further than Sri Lanka. It needed one call to the old lion Angelo Mathews, and one match to inject balance to their Playing XI. Primarily a batter, Mathews' bowling contribution was game-changing. With England cruising at 44/0 in six overs, Mathews ended the partnership with Malan's wicket, before inflicting Root's run-out. Sri Lanka leaned heavily on their most seasoned player, who had been in exceptional form during the Lanka Premier League. While playing for B-Love Kandy, Mathews typically bowled three overs upfront and returned around the 14th or 15th over, mirroring a similar pattern in Bengaluru. Here too, Mathews bowled three overs before returning for the 25th, where he snuffed out Moeen.

The pieces are scattered all around, and it's a monumental task for England to gather them all at this point. Sri Lanka's performance in the 1999 World Cup, where they finished second from the bottom of the table after the group stage, is often cited as the worst display by a defending champion in World Cup history. England may be on track to snatch this unfortunate distinction when all is said and done.

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