It’s hard to know right now if England are truly on the cusp of surfing a wave in one-day cricket, but there has certainly been something of a revival since their pitiful displays in the last World Cup 18 months ago.
In all, they have won 13 one-day internationals since then and lost nine. They have won series against New Zealand, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and lost narrowly to Australia and South Africa.
The evidence suggests the batting is in excellent shape at the moment. In that time, England have posted grand totals of 408, 399, 365, 355 and 350 – five of their seven best totals ever. Even allowing for some flat wickets and the modern trend for a par score to be so much higher than in previous times, this is a remarkable feat. However the bowling has not always been so good.
Against Pakistan, in the five-match series that begins on Wednesday, England are likely to start as fairly strong favourites thanks to their batting might, but this would be a good time for them to have a strong series with the ball.
In South Africa in February, England did not generally excel in the bowling stakes, though they led 2-0 with three to play and at Centurion set a faltering side, who had just lost the Test series, 319 to win.
Let’s examine what happened from that point. David Willey and Reece Topley, both currently injured, failed to strike with the new ball, allowing Quinton de Kock and Hashim Amla to get away with a fast start. But it was what ensued subsequently that really hurt England. Ben Stokes, Chris Jordan and Moeen Ali – all in the squad for the upcoming series – failed to stem the flow or take wickets in the overs that followed. Only Adil Rashid, who returned an exemplary 1-45 from his 10 overs, emerged with credit.
The CricViz database records that Stokes, in returning 0-54 from 8.2 overs, attempted just three slower balls and found no discernible swing or seam. The lack of movement was not his fault – this was a flat wicket and he did not have use of the new ball – but should he have been trying more slower balls? Chris Jordan bowled seven slower balls in his 1-54 from seven overs. South Africa scored just two runs from Jordan’s slower deliveries suggesting it was a tactic worth pursuing, but Jordan bowled only one per over, Stokes less than one every two overs.
As for the spinners, whereas Adil Rashid created a degree of uncertainty by bowling seven googlies in his 10 overs, every single delivery sent down by Moeen Ali was an off-break. Little wonder, perhaps, that he went for 30 more runs than Rashid.
The stats show also that Moeen had a bad shift at the office with his lengths that evening: six short-pitched balls and three full tosses, one at beamer height. As for the seamers, Stokes only got one attempted yorker on the spot, three others ending up as half volleys, two as full tosses. Jordan got two in the spot, but bowled three full tosses and seven half-volleys in all. When Jordan dropped short he was punished, with 27 runs coming off 16 balls.
As for the bowlers’ lines, Jordan bowled the vast majority of his balls outside off or down the leg side. On the 11 occasions he bowled at the stumps, South Africa scored just four runs. Stokes bowled significantly straighter, while Rashid – as you would expect from a decent leg-spinner – bowled all but five balls on a line between middle stump and outside off. Moeen’s default line, outside off stump, was easily milked – 47 runs coming from the 32 balls he bowled there.
Let’s fast forward to the mid-summer home ODI series and the only game England game close to losing against Sri Lanka, which ended in a fascinating tie at Trent Bridge.
On this occasion, Sri Lanka batted first and hit 286-9. It should have been a winning score when England then collapsed to 82-6 – that was until Jos Buttler and Chris Woakes had other ideas. In the Sri Lanka innings, 40 of the 50 overs were sent down by bowlers picked for the series that starts on Wednesday. They produced some varied results. Rashid took no wickets but his 10 overs cost just 36 runs, against batsmen who play spin particularly well. Ali was again much more expensive, taking 1-69. Liam Plunkett returned 2-67 and Woakes 2-56.
Ali again produced barely any variety, with 58/60 off-breaks and 55/60 missing off-stump. His lengths were an improvement on the Centurion ODI – nothing short, no full tosses – but he sent down 11 half-volleys which cost 21 runs.
The most expensive seamer on the day, Plunkett, had a problem with his lengths – a beamer, four full tosses and eight half volleys among his bag. His line was OK, but movement was hard to obtain – the one leg cutter he produced was hit for four in any event.
Woakes produced a little more movement, with five off cutters, and his lengths were better than Plunkett’s. However his economy rate would have surely been even better had he not bowled 20 balls on leg stump or down leg which produced 24 runs in all.
Why was Rashid so hard to score off? His line was excellent; by now he had added the top spinner to his armoury (so was bowling three different deliveries) and 77% of his balls were at that ideal spinner’s length just short of a half-volley.
In terms of overall stats, Rashid now has the foundations of what could become be a very good ODI career. He has played in all 10 of England’s ODIs this calendar year, picking up 11 wickets from 10 matches at an economy of 5.03. Ali’s record over the same period is six wickets from eight matches at an economy rate of 5.75. You would have to worry that having been treated to some pretty rough treatment at the hands of Pakistan’s spinners in the Tests that England might be tempted to overlook Ali at the start of the ODIs.
If they want a second spinner, then Liam Dawson, who enjoyed a fine T20 international debut in July, might be a better option.
As for the seamers, they are also a unit in flux. Mark Wood has not played an ODI in almost a year but his raw speed, seen to fine effect on Twenty20 finals day last Saturday, will surely be called upon. England’s lack of variety elsewhere – made all the more acute by the absence of the left-armer Topley alongside Willey who can swing a white ball – is a potential weakness. It has been demonstrated in this piece that Stokes, Woakes, Plunkett and Jordan – as right-arm seamers who don’t move the ball a huge amount and who all bowl speeds in the mid 80s – can struggle to be an effective unit. And that problem only exacerbates itself when they miss their yorkers, bowl too short or slide the ball down the leg side.
It sure has been fun to watch England bat of late in white ball cricket – when Jos Buttler and Jason Roy are in full cry few teams can live with them – but sometimes the pyrotechnics of the batsmen have masked the imperfections of the bowlers. Against a Pakistan side invigorated by squaring the Test series in the final match of that rubber, England might need all 11 players to pull their weight.