June 18, 2013

England do it pragmatically

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a deep statistical conviction behind their current method

England have been ruthlessly efficient at setting defendable totals © International Cricket Council

I can still see it now in my mind's eye, me and my dad looking down from our seats at the top of the Compton Stand. The Prudential World Cup final, England versus West Indies, 23 June 1979. The sun is out after a muggy morning. West Indies have made 286 for 9 from their 60 overs, a score always remembered for Viv Richards' 138 not out, an innings concluded by a six into the Tavern from the final delivery, the new King walking outside his off stump to flick Mike Hendrick's full toss deep into the crowd. Curiously, it hadn't been the best knock of the day. That had been Collis King's 86 from 66 deliveries, a game-changer that seemed to remind Viv and the rest of the West Indies side that they were cricket's dominant force.

Now Brearley and Boycott were batting against Roberts, Holding, Croft and Garner, and something strange was happening. It was not so much Geoffrey, who could, and usually did, bat as uncompromisingly as they bowled, but Brearley, who was stroking a high-class attack across the ground on a sunlit afternoon.

In 1979, 286 felt unattainably distant; the equivalent today of perhaps 340 from 50 overs. The final was only the 74th ODI ever played, and the game was quite different then. The ball was red, the cricketers wore whites. Sixty overs per side carried the appropriate payload of frivolity while allowing the players to perform "properly" in a way they couldn't do, for example, in the Sunday League, when innings flashed past in 40 overs and bowlers were required to limit their run-up to eight yards. There was no 30-yard circle: all nine men could field on the boundary if they wanted, and no one had ever heard of a Powerplay.

There had been one World Cup before, also in England and won by West Indies, who, in the intervening years, had finalised a strategy that was revolutionising the game: four brutal fast bowlers, seven attacking batsmen.

Superficially the numbers from that England innings seem to demonstrate an almost charming naivety, combined with the usual stiff-upper-lip attitude towards any kind of change. When Brearley was dismissed for 64, his side was 129 for 1 in the 39th over. Then Boycott, who had taken 17 overs to reach double figures, went for 57 from 105 deliveries and England endured a panicky collapse to Joel Garner and his mighty yorkers, hurtling down, it seemed, from a height equivalent to the third deck of the pavilion.

Yet viewed through contemporary eyes, when Brearley was out England needed 158 from 22 overs with nine wickets in hand. Not a gimme, but certainly no reason to abandon hope. And history has offered its revisions; there are plenty of quotes from gleeful West Indies players implying that they were only too happy not to have taken a wicket. But of how the game was poised at tea (yes, they used to stop for tea, too), when England were 79 for 0 after 25 overs, Gordon Greenidge later wrote: "If Brearley and Boycott had been more adventurous [after tea] the outcome of the whole match might have been different. They failed to realise that we were rattled and disheartened by our failure to part them."

Rattled and disheartened. I've often thought of that partnership during England's Champions Trophy run, and throughout Cook's captaincy of the 50-over side. For very different reasons, Cook's England appear to have arrived in a similar place. In progressing to the semi-finals, they have made two of the three highest first-innings scores of the group, and have set out a strategy that equips them to win matches with the kind of moderate totals that arise on English pitches in a wet summer.

While Boycott and Brearley opened because they were opening batsmen, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a deep statistical conviction behind England's current method. They are not a team that is tooled out to make or chase enormous scores, but they are ruthlessly efficient at setting and defending competitive ones. They have placed their chips on coming through the tournament without having to chase a 320 score, and they are riding odds that appear to be in their favour.

It's a strategy that infuriates pundits because it is built on pure pragmatism and the elimination of risk. It can seem almost counter-intuitive in the current age, but if England are doing it, you can bet that the numbers add up, because that is how they structure their approach. They are, as ever, controlling the controllables.

It seems strange to think it, but had the current regime been in charge back in 1979, Boycott and Brearley would have been their choice too. Now if only Geoffrey had got on with it after tea…

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • GARY on June 21, 2013, 23:22 GMT

    @cric_options I'm sorry but I don't know what you were watching in 83 and 92 because neither of those sides played fearless cricket at all. In 83 India were rather defensive side and played pragmatic sensible cricket all the way through the comp and beat a fearless WI side. In '92 Pakistan were poor most of the competition with some horrible performances in the qualifying rounds and should have been out if not for a rain affected game against England where they were bowled out for 74. They just so happened to have a good bowling attack and win 2 games in a row against NZ & England. It certainly wasn't down to any brand of fearless cricket that accounted for their win. England worked out that at home, when you have a good bowling attack you don't need 300+ scores to win, not often anyway. The top 3 do the hard yards, set up the inning so that the middle order can then get after the ball. They then leave the fearless cricket to the likes of Morgan, Buttler & Bopara.

  • Mohsin on June 18, 2013, 18:36 GMT

    If playing fearless were the only criteria to win the World Cup or Champions Trophy then every nation would have adopted this policy. In 83 WC Indian approach was defensive with their long tail of al-rounders. Actually it was other way around it was WI who were fearless and they ended up loosing the Final. It is not about playing fearless it is about playing methodical. A classic example would be; during 87 WC Final when McDermott was suppose to bowel the very last few overs and England was very close to crown and glory. Border brought Steve Waugh unexpectedly; Waugh bowled very sensible yorkers at the death to DeFreitas and Emburey this crucial move of Border prevented the victory for England. There is no formula to win big matches what required is: In the pressure game you follow the basics meaning player stick to the game plan, study the opposition well, select the playing eleven strategically, and deliver 200%, rest is simply fate.

  • Karun on June 18, 2013, 18:26 GMT

    I think this is probably England's best chance to win a tournament. This is mainly because of the fact that provided they win against SA, it could quite probably be a washout final- which would make England joint winners. But otherwise they've come so close soo many times and they lack what other world cup winners do- instintictive flair and fearlessness like @cric_options has pointed out.

  • Som on June 18, 2013, 17:42 GMT

    You know romanticism is good, but it doesn't work against hard data. Yes the same data which you think makes England a favourite is actually misleading. The 1983 World cup was won by India by playing fearless cricket. 1992 world cup was won by Pakistan by again playing fearless cricket. 1996 World cup, more than ever was won by a team playing the most fearless cricket ever. The Aussie dominance of the 99'03'07 world cups were built around fearless cricket. So what makes you think England will triumph? Well to be fair, their odds this time are good as they are not playing Srilanka and India both in the knockouts. And one bad day could happen to anyone. But it would have been impossible for them to win by beating SL and India in Semis and Finals. Still the chance is only 50%. Will see what happens.

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