Since the first one day match nearly 50 years ago England have had a rather troubled relationship with the format. Despite protestations to the contrary over that time, it has taken a clear second place to Test cricket in both the affections of English fans and the ECB itself. Where the horse and the cart are located is an open question, but despite reaching three World Cup finals it’s a poor record compared to any of the other major nations. The World T20 win in 2010, propelled by He Who Must Not Be Mentioned remains the only global title England have ever won, a shockingly poor return.
England have had periods of some success of course, but always with the feeling that they were carrying an extra load on their backs. The innovation came from from others, England last showing signs of thinking differently when they pushed Ian Botham up to open the batting in Australia in 1987. The 1992 tournament turned out to be something of a high water mark meaning that for a substantial proportion of followers England have been dreadful their entire lives. Of course that’s a slight exaggeration, there have been times where they’ve put in good performances, won series and reached finals ; likewise there have been players who have been good performers in both 20 and 50 overs, and yet although individual players were considered dangerous – Pietersen most notably recently – it never amounted to a side who would ever truly scare the opposition.
With the invention of T20 at professional level, it moved to a different plane, as all the major sides upped the ante. Where scores of 300 were regarded as exceptional, they now became the norm, with 400+ now not even proving a safe score as Australia found in South Africa. But not for England. Stories abounded of them being hidebound by computer modelling, of aiming for “competitive” scores that the data told them they would win with, only to be battered. Graeme Swann has rarely proved to be a reliable witness but his stories of England’s tactical thinking seemed all too plausible.
The nadir came at the 2015 World Cup, where England failed to get out of their group, something that takes a considerable degree of effort considering the determination of the ICC to try to render the group stages to be as meaningless as possible, except financially. They left to derision from the cricket world, and contempt at home, a path their football and rugby equivalents would follow soon enough.
And yet. With hindsight perhaps the first glimmers of a new approach came at around that time. The removal of Alastair Cook from the side, to his clear and very public disgust, was long overdue – not because he isn’t a good player, but because his style of batting is simply obsolete in short form cricket. His replacement Eoin Morgan’s clearly stated dissatisfaction with the method England were employing became ever more obvious during the disastrous performances in Australia, while the omission of Ben Stokes from the squad and refusal to pick Alex Hales seemed symptomatic of a setup that simply didn’t appear to understand one day cricket, thinking it a contraction of Tests not an expansion of T20. For the first time though, the players were showing the smallest hints of rebellion, and the appointment of Paul Farbrace to the England coaching staff seemed entirely at odds with a side approaching the game in such a conservative fashion.
The removal of Peter Moores as coach appeared to be the catalyst for finally attempting to play the game as the rest of the world had been doing for some years, and the bonus of New Zealand being the first visitors post World Cup forced the change in concept, both in one day cricket and Test cricket. England have a lot to be thankful to their teachers for. Andrew Strauss’s decision to retain Morgan as captain was, if not a brave one as such, certainly not what was expected. Farbrace’s determination that England play with freedom wasn’t remotely the first time it had been said, but it was the first time anyone had ever meant it. The old line about scoring at ten an over but don’t take any risks which was unquestionably the way England thought gave way to a more forgiving environment where taking risks was encouraged, and failure in that pursuit forgiven. This is perhaps the biggest, most important change England ever made. Freeing up players to express themselves is only truly possible if those players do not feel a presence looking over their shoulders in the event that they fail. There are endless buzz terms to describe that, but it still amounts to accepting that failure is the price of success.
The impact was immediate, England going over 400 for the first time in a series where they scored at least 300 every time except in a rain affected D/L win. Whereas before 300 was the upper limit of England’s aspirations, they were suddenly viewing it as the bare minimum. The second match, a defeat, perhaps best expressed the remarkable change in thinking. New Zealand had scored an impressive 398-5, the kind of total England couldn’t ever have hoped to try to chase down. They fell short alright, but only by 13 runs. For the first time, there was a feeling that England might actually be developing the kind of side to seriously challenge large totals.
New players were being brought in, not because they were being analysed for a Test place, but because they were outstanding one day prospects. Jason Roy had a slowish start but was kept faith with; Ben Stokes was brought back; Alex Hales was no longer kicking his heels and carrying drinks but opening the batting and being told to play the way he can. From an era where England relied on the middle order to try to raise the tempo from a solid start, they were suddenly going at it from the off, with those below tasked with maintaining the momentum, not rescuing a lost cause and aiming for respectability.
A series defeat to Australia followed, and the flip side of the determination to attack showed itself in the decider, where England collapsed to 138 all out and were thrashed. This perhaps proved to be the most important test, for rather than retreating into their shells they instead, under new coach Trevor Bayliss, reaffirmed their determination to play in the same way and to consider such failures as nothing other than an occupational hazard. There’s an irony here – for so long asserting that high risk approach as being the way a player or a team does things has been used as a stick with which to beat them. Grasping that risk is part of the equation has always seemed beyond a certain, very English kind of mindset.
A comfortable series win in the UAE against Pakistan showed that England could play more than one way under different conditions, for that kind of away series offered different challenges and different upper limits in terms of scoring. It also marked a change in bowling approach to stop simply using the Test bowlers – not for the sake of it, but because there were better one day options available. Jason Roy too finally showed what he is capable of, and with Jos Buttler rapidly becoming a player to genuinely fear, for the first time in living memory England had a top five or six where every single one of them could seriously damage opponents. One player not mentioned so far is Joe Root, and it could be said that he is performing the kind of role given in previous years to Cook or Trott – the conventional player around whom the others would bat. The difference being that Root is a true modern cricketer, multi-dimensional and capable of all formats. A run a ball as the base minimum is not at all bad when others are scoring even faster.
England lost the subsequent series in South Africa, but not before once again approaching the 400 mark and not before once again overreaching and falling short in two matches to cost the series. That caused the first criticism from the press of how England were playing, that they needed to learn to lower their sights. Although never being explicit about it, the message that came back when reading between the lines was to reject that kind of thinking completely, that bad days given the nature of the format were inevitable and that if England were truly to become the best, then this was the only way they would achieve it.
It is of course impossible to assess a wider view on how that response was received, but at least anecdotally, English supporters appeared to be fully behind it, and much more willing to accept the bad days than the media were. In most sports, supporters tend to be more forgiving of failure if they have faith in the approach. And this one was exciting – reaching for the stars is more thrilling than simply aiming to get off the ground, even when it doesn’t quite work out.
Which brings us to yesterday.
Given the history of England in one day cricket, the very idea that England would break the world record total was perhaps one of the most laughable that could be conceived. Perhaps only Bangladesh or Zimbabwe of the full members would ever be thought less likely to do such a thing, and undoubtedly eyebrows will be raised around the world that it was England (“What, England?”) who set the new target. But it’s been coming. While results have been a little up and down, the likelihood that England would give a bowling attack a right royal pasting has been increasing all the time. Pakistan may not be at the level they have been, but their bowling is their strong suit, and yesterday they were simply destroyed.
Perhaps symptomatic of England’s troubled history is that their national record for the highest individual score had stood for over 20 years, and while Robin Smith’s 167 is a fine score in any era, that it barely crept into the top 40 of highest individual scores – with the best ever nearly a hundred more – was as good an example of how badly England had been left behind as you could find. Smith’s record may have stood for 23 years, but there are no guarantees at all that Hales’ new mark will stand for as long as 23 days. Jason Roy came close only recently, and Jos Buttler, Joe Root or Ben Stokes look capable of beating it every time they come out to bat, while Eoin Morgan is hardly ruled out.
Further down the order hitters are prevalent too, indeed only Mark Wood resembles a tail ender in any way – Liam Plunkett at ten has shown himself capable of striking the first ball he receives for six in the past. If that is the batting, then the bowling attracts less attention, but as much as anything this is merely how one day cricket now works. It is all about the batting, and bowlers, to their chagrin and the delight of batsmen the world over, are reduced to nothing more than feeding the batters and trying to keep the run rate under control. Perversely or not, this makes bowlers who do take wickets even more valuable, and it is in that discipline that there is a little less certainty with regard to England.
While Hales rightly got the man of the match, it was Buttler who caught the eye even more. He simply terrorises the opposition – while he is in, anything is possible. Even so, while he reached his 50 off 22 balls, Eoin Morgan was only two balls slower to his, yet passed almost unnoticed such was the headiness of the striking.
England are now at the point where they strike fear into the heart of opponents. By making such a statement they are ensuring that no team will ever be sure they have enough runs, that no total is ever impregnable. It may not be that England are the best team in the world, but they are not far from it and they are still developing. Next year sees the Champions Trophy held in England, and perhaps for the very first time England will go in to a tournament not just with hopes of winning, but realistic aspirations that they should. Quite simply, there is no team, not India, not Australia, not New Zealand, who can compete with England’s batting power and depth. That in itself does not make them the best, for different conditions will bring different problems and highlight specific weaknesses, while other teams will play far better than Pakistan have. But what it does do is cause every other nation to cast nervous glances towards a side who are beginning to demonstrate that they are something a little bit special.
For any England fan, this is truly remarkable. The country that showed little interest except during World Cups where they stank the place out has set down a new standard. For the first time, perhaps ever, it is England who are causing the rest of the world to consider how to catch up.