Ben Jones analyses how, yet again, England’s inability to play on slow wickets has cost them.
Hubris – excessive pride or self-confidence.
Attacking cricket. Selfless cricket. Aggressive cricket. Total cricket.
England have spoken a lot about their new ‘brand’ since the 2015 World Cup, and a lot of people have spoken on their behalf. They have been praised for their results, and lauded for their style. They have scored 300+ more times than anyone; they have scored 350+ more times than anyone; they have scored 400+ more times than anyone. They have broken the world record for an ODI total, and then done it again. They have, objectively, changed the way people think about ODI batting. It would be foolish to do anything other than wholeheartedly acknowledge quite how good this England side have been for the last four years.
There’s the spoonful of sugar – now here’s the medicine.
Hamartia – a fatal flaw leading to the downfall of a tragic hero or heroine.
It is hard to think of any other outstanding team of the modern era which has had such an obvious Achilles heel. Yet again today, England collapsed on a pitch that gave the bowlers the slightest bit of encouragement. They lost against a Sri Lankan side who they shouldn’t lose to, chasing a score they should have been able to chase. Their place in the World Cup semi-finals is in jeopardy, because of a loss they shouldn’t have sustained.
Headingley has, in recent years, been a very good place to bat – but this surface was tough. You saw it everywhere you looked, whether that be the scoreboard or the faces of anguished batsmen unable to time their shots. Even for the players that got going on it, this pitch did funny things. Every other time Angelo Mathews has made 85 runs in ODI, he’s made them quicker than he did today. This pitched dragged Eoin Morgan’s strike rate down from 208 against Afghanistan on Tuesday, to 60 today. Ben Stokes looked at the bottom of his bat more times than he looked at the required rate.
We can try to quantify this difficulty, of course. CricViz’s PitchViz rating takes bowlers performance metrics in a match – metrics like bounce, swing, seam, pace – and normalises them against their own career figures, just as we do with our own eyes and cricketing experience, gauging what a bowler is doing and measuring it against what they normally do. “If Bumrah can’t get any life out of this surface, then it can’t be a great deck for quick bowlers”; “If de Grandhomme is getting it to spit, there must be something in it”.
Using those measurements – and plenty else – we are able to give each pitch a difficulty measure, the higher the rating the more difficult the pitch is for batting. The surface England and Sri Lanka played on today was rated as 6.9/10 for overall batting difficulty, making it the second toughest pitch of the World Cup so far.
If we only looked at the pace of the pitch, it had a rating of 3.5, making it the second slowest pitch of the competition, and the slowest pitch England have batted on since the Champions Trophy in 2017. The ball wasn’t coming onto the bat, and when it was there was no conviction in the shots, played as they were by uncertain, nervous batsmen unable to trust the surface. Attacking strokes today brought no value, and the lowest scoring rate for any match this tournament. This was always going to be a difficult surface to dominate on, when it came to batting.
In that sense, England’s struggles in the chase can be understood. This was an old-fashioned ODI, and in old-fashioned ODI cricket the defending side have a big advantage. A day of scrabbling around for runs tends to see the team batting first come out on top.
In reality, that excuse doesn’t wash. England are the world No.1 ODI side, and pride themselves on their batting strength – and that strength cannot only be expressed with sixes on flat decks. Today in Leeds, they were facing a bowling attack that has not left a dent on any side bar Afghanistan in this tournament, and they were unable to find a solution regarding how to face them.
It’s a worry – for England to win the World Cup, they have to be able to make and chase competitive totals on pitches that help bowlers, and for a prolonged period of time, they’ve not been able to do that. As the graphic below makes clear, when the pitches get tougher, England lose more.
On the 11 toughest pitches that England have played on since the Champions Trophy, Morgan’s side have won six matches. They can win on these decks, but that is a distinctly human record for a side who have, at times, seemed superhuman. By contrast, on the 11 best pitches for batting that they’ve played on since the Champions Trophy, they’ve won nine matches.
Of all the features of a pitch, it’s the pace that influences how England go. As we have said, today’s pitch was the slowest England have played on since the last ICC tournament, and the importance of that cannot be underplayed. On slow wickets England, quite frankly, are not a good ODI side.
Catharsis – the process of releasing, providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.
None of this is to take credit from Sri Lanka. It’s important to acknowledge that there was tremendous skill in the way Karunaratne marshalled his men, and punished England’s weaknesses. Avishka Fernando was the only man who looked capable of fluency, and he’s 21 years old – his innings, with the benefit of hindsight, was sensational. Lasith Malinga, recognising the difficulty of the surface, went route one and bowled 19% of his deliveries at the stumps, more than anyone else in the match. Unable to hit through the line with confidence, England’s batsmen were forced into defending, and that is not something that many bowlers can do. Pitches don’t take wickets, bowlers do.
Yet that angle won’t go uncovered in the 24 hours to come, because the world is revelling in this England defeat.
People are laughing at them, because for four years England have projected nothing but confidence in their methods. It’s England, so people have chosen to interpret that confidence as arrogance, and there are few less appealing traits. England’s ambition to score 500 has been interpreted as folly, as the hubristic endpoint of a privileged mindset. It has not been seen for what it is, i.e. a team who have scored 481 in an innings, wanting to score 19 more runs. For many, this is the cathartic end to the four year cycle, where England’s flaws have been exposed. It’s all unravelling, and suddenly the semi-finals are not a certainty for the hosts, but a goal.
Plenty have seen England’s rise as a point of frustration, but one tinged with quiet expectation that it is an ultimately tragic trajectory. England are confident, but flawed in their approach to gaining the ultimate prize. They go harder, they fall harder. Morgan understands this; he nods, and he accepts the potential consequences. That’s why England are No.1 in the world, because that level of conviction in your method, allied with outrageous talent, will come good – but it’s why plenty have faith that it’s doomed to fail.
Anagnorisis – the critical moment of recognition or discovery.
In Greek tragedy, the moment of anagnorisis typically comes when the character’s fate is already determined. Only when their fatal flaw has destroyed them, do they recognise its fatal nature. The narrative is determined as such, from the moment the story begins.
And yet, so far, this England side has resisted narrative. When Morgan’s side have lost, they have never capitulated, falling apart in the way many have gleefully predicted. Almost always, they have gone on to win the next game; since the Champions Trophy, they have never lost consecutive ODIs. They are a strong-willed, tightly knit group who look after each other, forgive failings within reason, and believe in the method that has brought them success.
In this light, perversely, England should see today as a stroke of luck. They have been given a final life, one last chance to learn from the way their flaws have thwarted them in the past, and one last chance to remove that flaw before it costs them on the biggest stage of all.
Let’s hope they take it.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.