England must learn to win ugly if they are to win the World Cup. That is their challenge with just one more ODI series before the start of a potentially momentous home summer.
While England have earned a reputation for explosive batting on true surfaces – they have recorded the two highest totals made in the history of ODI cricket since the last World Cup, both times at Trent Bridge – they have not always proved so dominant in conditions where bowlers have more in their favour. Think of the performance against South Africa at Lord’s in 2017, when they were bowled out for 153, or the match against Australia at Old Trafford in 2015 (they made just 138).
But nowhere was this struggle to adapt more painfully exploited that in the semi-final of the Champions Trophy against Pakistan. In that game, on a used surface that provided a bit of assistance to spinners and reverse-swing bowlers, England were dismissed for 211. Pakistan cruised to an eight-wicket win.
So, as England start their lead-up to their World Cup campaign – they now play nothing by white-ball cricket until mid-July – they know it is an area they must improve. And, with a possibility that some surfaces in this series against West Indies may prove tough for batsmen, it is a weakness that may confront them several times in the coming days.
“Everybody expects us to win,” Eoin Morgan said ahead of Wednesday’s ODI in Barbados. “But the manner it will play out will be different from what people expect.
“There is the challenge of playing on slower wickets that don’t necessarily allow us to play an expansive game. We have improved on it, but to produce a level of consistency in performing and winning is something we haven’t nailed down.
“I played here last year for Barbados and the pitch was quite uneven and steep bouncing. It offered some turn, too, and the wind plays a big part. So it will be a tough challenge and everybody in our changing room knows that. It’s not an easy place to come and win particularly when they have a lot of match winners.”
England misread the conditions ahead of the Test here, however, and it is possible they have done so again. While surfaces on the England Lions tour and in the CPL were not especially good for batting, the pitches prepared for the first two ODIs in Barbados look full of runs.
Morgan’s logic is sound, though. England failed to adapt to that surface in Cardiff and, while most pitches for the World Cup are expected to promote big-hitting and high scores, there is always the possibility they will be confronted by a more demanding surface along the way. If so, their batsmen will quickly have to work out what a challenging score might be and play accordingly. It has not been a strength in recent times.
England must also grow accustomed to being talked about as favourites and people expecting them to win. This is not entirely new for them – it has been the case for the last 12 months, at least – and they have encouraged such talk in the hope it will
“We don’t mind the tag of favourites,” Morgan said. “We’ve spoken about it and we’ve learned to be at ease with it in the last few series. It doesn’t really mean anything: you still have to produce to be rewarded.”
But, while England do start this series as favourites – they are No. 1 in the world rankings, after all, and West Indies No. 9 – Morgan made the point that Scotland beat them less than a year ago. There can be no room for complacency.
In terms of individual selections, the batting and spin bowling looks reasonably secure. But there is at least one seam-bowling position to be finalised, with the likes of Mark Wood, Tom Curran and Liam Plunkett hoping to do enough to see off the challenge from Jofra Archer, who qualifies in about a month.
But while Morgan played down any threat to Plunkett’s position, in particular, he did accept that pace – one of Archer’s primary weapons – was an important part of his bowling armoury. And he might have provided a little hint that the loss of Olly Stone, who played in Sri Lanka but has subsequently been diagnosed with a stress fracture, could offer Archer an opportunity.
“I’m not concerned about Plunkett,” Morgan replied to a question about the bowler’s apparently diminishing pace. “The trajectory and variations he brings are valuable, too. When you’re facing him, it’s not easy. Particularly here where a bit of extra height does count.
“We are very lucky because we probably have only one injury to a guy who might have been involved and that’s Stone. He is capable of bowling 90mph along with Plunkett and Mark Wood. The difference of having those guys is quite significant. You only had to watch the Test matches to see how valuable they are.
“One of the best attributes I have is to compartmentalise things. Until Jofra qualifies, he’s not really in our thoughts at the moment.”
If Wood is unable to replicate the pace he generated in St Lucia, however, and Plunkett is unable to offer the mid-innings control that he has provided so often in recent times, it is likely Archer will feature very prominently in Morgan’s thoughts before this series is over. (ESPNCricinfo)