Ben Jones reflects on the strength in these two brutal batting line-ups.
Tomorrow, England and West Indies meet in Southampton, for the fourth match of the campaign for both teams. The game has significant implications for the World Cup standings, with the loser facing a difficult (if not impossible) route to the semi-finals. Purely as a battle between two nations searching for glory, it’s a big occasion.
It won’t have escaped the attention of many that it’s also a game replete with narrative and backstory. The saga of Jofra Archer’s qualification has been discussed in depth for months, and it comes to a head tomorrow as he plays against the nation he ‘snubbed’ for England. What’s more, earlier this year Jason Holder’s side became the first team to avoid series defeat against England for over two years, and have a decent claim on being something of a bogey team. Yet perhaps the most important backdrop to this match is that the last time these two sides met in an ICC event, West Indies walked away with the World T20 title.
Then, back in the heady days of April 2016, England and the West Indies made it to the final playing similarly hard, ultra-attacking cricket. They were strategically similar, but in general discussion were different enough to be seen as representing different things, different worlds, different philosophies. One was an old side, one young; one the neutral’s favourite, one distinctly not; one won, one lost.
You can’t underestimate the impact that the World T20 had on the two squads currently camped out in the Hilton Hotel at the Ageas Bowl. That T20 mentality, that well-honed aggressive technique, has so obviously bled into the ODI sides; as England and West Indies go into Friday’s match, they are the two fastest scoring sides in the world this year.
That’s a fair crown, and one worth reflecting on – but these two batting line-ups have an even greater historical backdrop to their achievements. The England side of 2019, and the West Indies side of 2019, are the two fastest scoring teams, in a calendar year, in the history of ODI cricket.
That sort of performance doesn’t come by accident. It’s a clear result of their approaches; both teams are filled with hitters, aggressive stroke-makers who can clear the rope with impunity. The majority of men on either side have scored at quicker than a run a ball since the last World Cup, and the tactical similarities are clear. Each team only employs one ‘anchor’, who bats at No.3, and that player is extremely effective in their role. Joe Root and Shai Hope know their job, and they execute it expertly, while everyone else just goes hard.
Both have a decent mix of right-handers and left-handers, of players who boss spin and players who boss pace. These are sides built on the principles of T20, of how you construct a team in the shortest format. However, they do diverge slightly in some respects. England have maintained that high run rate through relentless, unerring attack. No squad at this World Cup has a higher attacking shot percentage.
Yet you can see that West Indies attacking shot percentage is relatively low, compared to what we know their run rate to be. Their secret is less the frenetic approach of England, and more in the mould of their talismanic opener. Chris Gayle starts slowly, picks his moments, and makes it count when he does choose to attack. That’s the make-up of the Windies side – their attacking strokes score more quickly than any other side at this World Cup. Both of these sides are achieving remarkable things in terms of scoring, but they are doing it in different ways.
Before we get too carried away, let’s throw in a shot of realism. One of the contradictions at the heart of both these sides is that whilst they can post 350, they often need to in order to win the game. Both England and West Indies have very, very leaky bowling attacks, and their economy rates this year are firmly rooted as among the worst around. Runs when they’re batting, runs when they’re bowling. Easy come, easy go.
That contradiction has made them two of the most entertaining sides in the world, two sides broadly guaranteed to provide wickets and runs at a greater rate than plenty others – sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not. There is plenty that binds these sides together, from that final in 2016, to Jofra Archer’s journey westwards, but their commitment to this style of cricket is the most base, the most structural, the most inescapable.
There are still differences between the two teams, as you’d expect. England’s side is built around a particular kind of fluidity, a surplus of all-rounders that ensures their sixth bowler (either Ben Stokes or Moeen Ali, depending on how you look at it) is a quality, genuine threat. They have two spinners, a wrist-spinner and a finger-spinner, plus four quicks who offer very different skills. Joe Root, their seventh bowler, is arguably better at his particular brand of rolling offies than Aiden Markram, at times used as South Africa’s sixth bowler. England match their batting depth with bowling depth. In the past, it’s been referred to – though more in the Test match arena – as Total Cricket.
By contrast, the West Indies revel in the relative one-dimensional nature of their attack. Ashley Nurse’s status in the side is as a borderline specialist fielder, which for a man not exactly held back by excessive athleticism, is an oddity. Tactically, and emotionally, Holder’s attack is built around pace – and lots of it. The quartet of Sheldon Cottrell, Oshane Thomas, Kemar Roach and Andre Russell have ensured that the Windies attack is plenty fuelled with fire, and they’ve been relentless in their bouncer barrage so far; no team has bowled short more often in this World Cup.
Yet even that classically West Indies pace tactic has began to eke its way into the England dressing room. As Archer has been introduced to the England team, so has some Caribbean thinking; almost half of their deliveries in 2019 have been short, the most of any year since the last World Cup.
The thing is, that give and take of ideas is visible in the way these sides have interacted over the last few years. Much is made of how Eoin Morgan was taken by the gung-ho approach of Brendon McCullum’s 2015 World Cup side, but not much is made of the fact that it took until after the World T20 for Morgan’s new approach to start consistently winning games. The 2015 tournament showed that you could compete with an ultra-aggressive model, but the 2016 tournament showed you could win with it.
Three years later, as England pulled ahead in the rankings and West Indies were left behind, Holder’s strategic thinking became muddled, a muddle made worse by a reduced pool of talent available to him and the selectors. Their run rate sank. Then at the start of this World Cup year, it began to soar. Perhaps it was the return of some core players from the T20 circuit, but perhaps it was Holder taking his lead from Morgan, just as Morgan had once taken his lead from Darren Sammy. These things do tend to work in cycles.
It goes without saying that on Friday, we’re all desperate for a day without rain. It’s an unfortunate consequence of an unusually wet English June, but the tournament has lost a little momentum in the last week, with the multiple washouts. However, if Friday were to be lost to the weather, and the spoils were shared, it would in a way be rather fitting. These two sides have given a lot to each other over the last four years. Offering the other a World Cup point feels like the least they could do.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.