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Is England’s World Cup 2019 favourite tag undeserved after recent wobbles?

March 9th, 2019Cricket
Scour the headlines and TV punditry surrounding this year’s ICC World Cup and you would be hard pressed to find the average neutral backing any other team but England to win the tournament. Even dyed-in-the-wool historical ‘enemies’ of the English side have been finding it difficult to envisage their home team in the top spot when asked for their predictions. Sunil Gavaskar, Shane Warne, Shaun Pollock among a bevy of experts and former stars placing England as red hot favourites with India nipping at their heels. So one might think that would inevitably lead to a dull procession to the final at Lords with the only excitement of the tournament to discover if it will be India or more likely, England raising the trophy aloft. And yet, things got suddenly very interesting in the Caribbean as the West Indies came a whisper away from beating England and inflicted thrashings along the way. Expat Sport’s Dan McTiernan investigates the tumultuous ups and downs of the latest ODI series between West Indies and analyses why England’s greatest strength may just be their Achilles heel.

Depending on which camp you are in, England are either marching towards certain victory or doomed to crash and burn in an almighty batting collapse at this year’s ICC World Cup 2019 and the West Indies ODI series last month contained matches that support both forecasts as being perfectly valid. The series ended drawn at 2-2 with the third match in Grenada completely rained off with no result.

The first match played at the famous Kensington Oval in Barbados on 20th February got the series off to a competitive start with West Indies coming out of the blocks well and amassing a decent total of 360 for 8 with the help of an imperious Chris Gayle smashing 135. But England’s powerhouse batting line up stepped up and knocked off the total with relative ease with more than an over to spare and for the loss of just four wickets. Both Roy and Root shone, hitting impressive centuries, accumulating 123 and 102 respectively. The match made for an entertaining watch with both teams finding some form with the bat and setting up the rest of the series nicely.

England captain Eoin Morgan said:

"We thought 361 was definitely chaseable. We said at the halfway stage that it was game on. Jason and Jonny were brilliant and Jason got us way ahead of the game with that magnificent hundred. We don't take Joe Root for granted at all. We're extremely lucky to have him and to win in the fashion we did tonight, he played a big part."

West Indies captain Jason Holder commented:

"With a side like England, if you put them down, they're going to make you pay for them. We're a little disappointed with the way we went about it in the second innings. The bowlers tried, we created chances but we just didn't hold them in the field."

Match two of the series was again played at the Kensington Oval on 22nd February, and West Indies needed to prove a point and get back into the series asap. And get back into it they did indeed in a thrilling 26 run victory and with an outstanding bowling performance. West Indies batted first but England managed to restrict them to a very average 289 - 6 with Hetmyer top scoring on 104. A second England victory looked to be a mere formality, but West Indies clearly hadn’t read the script and in a blistering effort took England’s last 6 wickets for just 35 runs as the visitors collapsed to 263 all out. Jason Holder dismissed Jos Buttler and Tom Curran in consecutive balls during England's collapse, while Sheldon Cottrell took a career-best 5-46.

The dramatic way in which England’s middle and late order capitulated didn’t seem to set too many alarm bells ringing throughout the camp however.

England captain Eoin Morgan reflected:
“A game is never won until the end. We rebuilt really well and guys managed to get themselves in. But we didn't do good things for long enough. We made mistakes and it hurt us. West Indies deserved to win.
"We did a lot of good things today. Two games into the series, we did make a lot of improvements.
"We felt that 290 was well within our capabilities. We need to chase a total like that down in partnerships.
"We did have partnerships but not significant enough ones. When you get on top, you really need to nail it home - and we didn't do that today."
At 1-1 in the series, the wash-out at Grenada on 25th February proved to be very disappointing with not one ball being bowled all day.

With things delicately poised, match four gave Grenada some cricket after all, being played on 27th February. Another absolute cracker of a game, it turned out to be a batting masterclass from both teams. The highlights of which were England smashing 418-6 with Jos Buttler’s incredible 150 off just 77 balls, with both Hayles, 82, and Morgan, 103 offering ample support. What made the games even more memorable was the way in which West Indies responded. Chris Gayle continued his excellent form following on from a century and half-century in the first and second match to pulverise England, scoring 162 off 96 balls including fourteen sixes. For long stretches of the second inning is seemed that West Indies would knock off the total and win the match. But England’s bowlers had other ideas with Mark Wood claiming 4-60 and crucially Adil Rashid scalping 4 wickets in the 48th over alone to finish with 5-85. The match highlights included a record breaking 24 maximums scored by England, only for West Indies to almost better that themselves with an imperious 22 sixes. However with England finally holding their nerve, and winning by 29 runs.

If matches in the ICC World Cup will be as entertaining as this one was, global spectators are in for a feast of cricket.

At 2-1 down the hosts were looking to restore pride and level the series while England were seeking to press home the advantage and clinch the series.

The fifth and final match was played on the 5th March in St Lucia in front of an expectant home crowd. The wicket was especially bouncy - of note because England are unlikely to play on anything remotely similar at this year’s World Cup - but their performance was anything but. Of all ten wickets in England’s innings, eight batsmen fell to short-pitched deliveries and the innings rapidly went into full meltdown. Losing their final five wickets for just two runs, they collapsed to their lowest ever ODI total against West Indies, all out for just 113. It was West Indies bowler Thomas topping the accolades with a dizzying 5-21. Gayle was in no mood to let victory slip this time and bludgeoned 77 runs bringing a sweet win by 7 wickets within just 12.1 overs.

The scale and nature of the defeat cause shockwaves throughout the cricketing world. England coach Trevor Bayliss talking of not just disappointment, but embarrassment when interviewed post match:

"The gulf between our good matches in this series and our bad one is huge. We've been trying to be more consistent but today was a very poor performance. The only explanation is this wicket is the type we don't play a lot on - it had a lot of bounce in it.

"There's no wickets like this in England. It was the steepness of the bounce which we don't often get to face.

"After only a few overs and a few wickets it was obvious with the bouncing ball, we'd have to let a few go and a score of 200 would see us right in the match.

"We just went out and carried on playing exactly the same and made the same mistakes and got the same result.

"I've seen the guys disappointed before but in the changing room today I think there's a bit of embarrassment."

The strong reaction from Bayliss not just a product of that day’s dismal performance, but reflective of the fact that this has happened before. Think back to their shock loss to Scotland or the out of the blue capitulation in 2017’s Champions Trophy against Pakistan having previously won everything convincingly in the group stages. Not to mention falling for 20-6 that same summer against South Africa.

All of these matches following a similar pattern of batsman after batsman falling to the same ill advised shots as on previous occasions or worse still as their immediate predecessor. A seeming blind spot in approach toward watch and learn from the conditions, the opposition and the previous wickets. Against South Africa it was poor judgement against impressive swing bowling, against West Indies it was inability to cope with the bouncer. In all these innings England’s world beating batting line up simply followed each other in procession over a cliff edge of poor judgement, like so many lemmings.

Eoin Morgan is credited with rebranding English ODI cricket and bringing about such a remarkable change in fortunes since their last dismal outing at the 2015 World Cup, that not only are they ranked number one ODI team on the planet, but nearly everyone sees them winning the trophy in final analysis.

And yet, they still have incredibly poor days like these and in many ways it is their winning mindset that brings about their humiliating defeats. It’s the ultra aggressive attitude of batsmen dominating the bowlers no matter what logic and the conditions scream to the contrary. And when one batsman falls, the next teammate walking in takes it upon him to immediately try to rest the initiative back with cavalier and often poorly judged shots. When it comes off it is sublime and spectacular, when it doesn’t it is spectacularly bad. And that is what all the other nine teams playing in this year’s World Cup are keenly observing about this England team. Are they capable of resorting to Plan B if things don’t go according to Plan A? on this evidence maybe the answer is no and that means they are more than beatable on any given day.

And that result just spiced up this tournament no end. Who is the favourite now? England, India, maybe the West Indies. Your guess is as good as ours, but either way it means we are in for a dramatic and emotional rollercoaster! Bring it on!

Expat Sport’s Dan McTiernan unpicks the intense twists and turns of fortune in the latest ODI series between West Indies as both sides build up to the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 and analyses why England’s greatest strength might just be their vulnerability.