England v South Africa: 3rd ODI

Appalling and disgraceful.  Shocking and irresponsible.  Replace the lot of them.

There’s bound to some kind of kneejerk response from some quarters to what was a pretty poor display by England, both with the bat and the ball.  Yet there does need to be some context involved: over the past two years England have been remarkably consistent batting first.  In the 23 innings in that time frame, they have passed 300 16 times. Furthermore, on all occasions they didn’t reach that landmark (and a few when they did) they lost.

England batting first in the last two years

What that suggests first and foremost is that 300 is the absolute benchmark now, and indeed all too frequently isn’t enough.  This isn’t especially a shock to anyone watching ODI cricket recently, but given that, it also makes it clear that taking risks is inherent in the modern game.

That list also shows that when England get it wrong, they do so spectacularly, the 138 at Manchester against Australia and the 153 today clear outliers.  Today was actually a pretty good recovery from 21-6, and showed a degree of fight and ballsiness that should be welcomed, albeit in a hopeless cause.  Where the debate lies is in the way England got out to a succession of poor, indeed identikit, shots in the first five overs.

Here’s the nub of it, how should a team approach the innings when they lose early wickets.  Within that list are a couple of examples – versus New Zealand at Southampton and the West Indies in North Sound, where England were 34-2 and 29-2 respectively – where they carried on going for the shots and scored just either side of 300, winning one and losing the other.  Either or both of those could have gone wrong and 40-4 the outcome, but it’s indicative of England’s approach that they do not decide to moderate their play but carry on in the same vein.

Now, it would be absolutely ideal if England could adjust their sights according to the situation, but this is a more difficult mental thing than might be supposed.  If a team is to play without fear, as most seem to want them to do, then that means backing themselves not to get out, but to score and score heavily.  A hope that England hit lots of sixes but don’t take any risks is all too easy to fall into, and the moment that freedom to stuff it up is removed, then the prospects of scoring 300 and even 400 as they have done recedes into memory.  To put it another way, collapses like this are an occupational hazard from a team that lives on the edge in their batting.

Of course, it could be argued that once they are three or four down, that kind of moderation would be eminently sensible, and that’s also true, but collapses happen in all forms of the game, and all who play at any level will be familiar with the post match head scratching as to why exactly everyone chose to get out to dreadful shots.

As someone might have said about their own game in the past, this is how England play, and given that there are going to be days where they get it all wrong.   Beating them up for that is entirely counterproductive and needs to be seen as the price paid for the generally successful highly aggressive strategy.  It doesn’t excuse an individual error, but it does explain how it can happen across the team.  England fans recall all too well the restrained style where they aimed for something competitive, and much good it did them too.

Having had that disastrous start, they actually did fairly well to reach 153, entirely down to Bairstow, Willey and Toby Roland-Jones.  It’s worth noting that none of them were especially restrained in their batting, going for their shots throughout in a vain attempt to pull off a miracle and get England a defendable total.  It could be argued that by so doing, and scoring at a shade under 5 an over, it represented the only possible way England had of offering up anything competitive.

South Africa certainly looked better for the changes they made.  Conditions were helpful early on, but not unduly so, and the addition of Morne Morkel lent the attack an air of increased menace.  Rabada may well be a star of the upcoming tournament, for he offers both express pace and control, while Parnell too looks dangerous at times.  A small wobble in the run chase is part for the course with the South Africans, but this match was effectively done after five overs.

For England, their bowling attack had a distinctly second string look to it, but with such a small total it is perhaps unfair to judge them harshly on today’s display.  Still, the opening spells were woefully poor in both direction and length, removing any minimal hope there might have been.  Roland-Jones did himself no harm, while Jonny Bairstow continues to be the most under-appreciated cricketer England have had in a while.  The batting is certainly strong, it must be in order for him to be left out.

It’s probably no bad thing for England to be given a kick up the backside in what was both a warm up match and a dead rubber as far as the series was concerned.  The real business begins later in the week, and it’s clear that England are certainly capable of winning the competition, but also capable of falling flat on their faces if they get it wrong.  It makes them a very interesting side to watch.