For two years now, England’s one-day team has embraced an alternative personality. With the Champions Trophy beginning on June 1, it’s time to see if they can pull it off.
It had gotten to be embarrassing. The fogeys in the kitchen, stinking the place out yet again. Another humbling, another ushering out the back door. And it was all so dull. It was probably the worst, that last one. Left Stokes at home. Australia crushed us, New Zealand took just 12.2 overs, Bangladesh sent us packing.
Once back home, strung out at Heathrow, the brains trust must have looked around at this gaggle of cricketers in Arrivals, glanced, too, at those kicking their heels by the taxi rank, and decided there and then to bloody well go for it.
It was immediate and extreme. In their first full match after the World Cup they splattered New Zealand all over Edgbaston for 408 in 50 overs. Three days later, they plundered 365 in 46 overs. Five days from that, 350 in 45.
It kept on rolling. Lost to Australia by the odd match in five – two post-300 scores, a collapse in the decider. Won the first two, lost the next three against South Africa. Kept on. Bullied Sri Lanka. Highest ever ODI score against Pakistan. Rolled on. Made 1,037 runs in three matches against India and still lost.
In all, 39 matches since the end of the last world tournament – 39 matches of startling highs and brushed-off lows, rolling all the way to this: the year it’s meant to come together.
“We play our ‘brand of cricket’ because that’s going to win us tournaments,” asserts movement leader Eoin Morgan, at a Chance to Shine event in London a few days before his sixth trip to the IPL. He speaks with due gravity. Every statement weighted. You will have noticed before that Morgan is not the kind of bloke to deal in equivocations.
He is answering a question relating to something the ECB’s chief executive had recently said about the importance of playing entertaining cricket, even if it meant losing some games. “It’s a very deliberate strategy,” Tom Harrison had been quoted as saying. “[Test captain] Joe Root and Eoin Morgan both understand their responsibility to be playing exciting cricket for future generations to connect with. It doesn’t work every time you go out on the park. But we understand that it’s more likely you’re going to be forgiven for having a bad day if you’re doing everything to try to win a game.”
It’s one of the great ironies of cricket’s ultra-professional era: that a sudden zeal for young hearts and minds has become so central to the thinking of a major governing body that its CEO dares to talk about performance over result. Seen in a certain light, it’s staggering talk; in another, rather beautiful. Morgan, on the other hand, rarely deviates from the pragmatic.
“I think we’re both on the same page,” he says carefully, “but in different mindsets. The fact that it is entertaining, currently, is because it wins games of cricket – if we played in Boycott’s era when you had to bat for a day-and-a-half, that would be the most popular style at the time and everyone would be raving about it. Right now that isn’t the type of cricket people are playing. So we have to play this style to win games of cricket. If it’s popular and people enjoy watching it, then that’s a beauty.”
The punters will be hard-pressed not to. If English cricket is really serious about reaching new audiences, they could not in their wildest dreams have hoped for a sexier version of their product to offer. Somehow cricket continues to elaborate and not just annotate the old textbooks, finding fresh answers to ancient problems, and for once the English are furiously scribbling away.
Their batsmen, in particular, currently swaggering along at a faster rate than any other team in the world, only stop hitting when they run out of partners; Morgan duly confirms that for the Champions Trophy, his top seven – Hales, Roy, Root, himself, Stokes, Buttler, Moeen – “pretty much select themselves”.
So Harrison can rest assured. This bunch of libertines are incapable of winning ugly. They will thrill regardless. Yet for all this extraordinary talk of style, there’s nothing quite like the sensation that accompanies seeing your team, your country, your flag, on top of the world. Getting there, however; now that’s the really hard bit.
England’s story in global 50-over tournaments is easily the worst of all the major teams. As architects of failure, South Africa lag way back in distant second. England have appeared in 11 World Cups and seven Champions Trophy tournaments, hosting six of them, and won the grand total of naff-all. Factor in five defeats from five finals, each one loaded with pained inner stories (Gatting’s sweep, Botham’s phantom nick, Ravi’s hook) and the record begins to ascend from mere tragicomedy to full-blown opera.
Morgan, of course, couldn’t give a toss about the past. “It’s a completely different group of players,” he says, and broadly he’s right. Only himself, Buttler and Root have been retained in the 15-man squad from the team that gave up the 2013 Champions Trophy to India in the Edgbaston rain. This current squad does have some experience in last-gasp agony, however, and Morgan is keen to address it.
“We’ve spoke a little bit in the recent past about the feeling in the changing room after the West Indies this time last year, how that feeling affected the guys, and to get the opportunity to rectify that is a big thing with this group. We were right there [one over from winning the World Twenty20] and it got taken away from us. It proves that the job’s never done.”
No longer is it convenient lip service for English folk to ascribe equal importance to their limited-overs teams. It’s real and genuine, and from a sporting and commercial point of view, entirely necessary, as 50-over world tournaments and Twenty20 domestic leagues make ever-greater claims on centre stage. A fragile English ecosystem has been created: charismatic performances on the park, married with accessibility off it, alongside the onrush of shiny, new domestic T20 leagues to attract big-money names and grab young audiences, for whom a heavily-promoted participation programme is now available.
For all his pragmatism, Morgan recognises what’s at stake here. With a Champions Trophy to win and a World Cup also to be staged in England in 2019, he and his team has a chance to establish something dangerously close to a legacy. It would be understandable if those players packed in cocooned international dressing rooms tended to view the worlds of village green, city rec and municipal field as utterly removed from the job in hand. And yet the message has never been clearer. We’re all in this together.
“We’re well aware of it,” Morgan says. “It’s the nature of everything that we do. It’s an awesome position to be in, to be able to promote the game in this way.”