England v NZ, 3rd NatWest ODI, Trent Bridge June 4, 2013

Concerning signs for England

With their form and home advantage disappearing, Alastair Cook's side are being viewed differently ahead of the Champions Trophy

It is remarkable how quickly things can change. A week ago, in the eyes of many, England were favourites for the Champions Trophy. A week ago, the theory was that in home conditions and armed with two new balls, England would prevail in low-scoring matches. A week ago, England had a balanced attack, a settled team and a tried and trusted method that had brought them unprecedented success.

Suddenly, that all seems like a long time ago. Suddenly, England's top order are seen to lack urgency, the bowling to lack bite or control, and the middle-order to lack experience and form. England, in the eyes of many, have gone from favourites to no-hopers in the blink of an eye.

It is true that there have been some worrying signs in the opening two ODIs against New Zealand. On excellent batting tracks and with the ball barely swinging, England's methods have appeared obsolete. The support bowlers have been inadequate replacements for the injured Steven Finn and Stuart Broad and the batsmen, without the injured Kevin Pietersen, have lacked the firepower to mend the damage inflicted by their own bowlers conceding too many runs. In short, England's best-laid plans have been torn to shreds.

But it is worth thinking back a little further. It is worth remembering that this England side is, give or take a position here and there, the same one that rose to the top of the ODI rankings less than a year ago. This is the first time England have lost a home ODI series since 2009 and the same side that won a record 10 ODIs in succession a year ago. It is worth remembering how well New Zealand have played and it is worth remembering what happens when England abandon continuity of selection to chase results. They have been down that path. It does not have a happy ending.

That is not to say all is perfect. If England have learned anything from this series, it is how important some of their key players are to their success. The reputations of Pietersen, Finn and Broad have all been boosted by their absence. Jade Dernbach and Chris Woakes are both admirable cricketers but, in these conditions and at this stage of their careers, they have struggled to manage the role they have been given.

Recent results also suggest England have no Plan B. Not since 2006 have England suffered a whitewash in a home ODI series. On that occasion, when Sri Lanka thrashed them 5-0, just as now, England came unstuck on the flattest of pitches when scores in excess of 300 became par. England remain an excellent side in conditions when 260 is par, but there is little record of them excelling when that figure rises to 300. Indeed, while Ian Bell, speaking at Trent Bridge on Monday, reckoned England would have "knocked off 320 quite comfortably" it is worth remembering that no England side has ever done so. England's highest successful chase in an ODI is the 306 for 5 they made against Pakistan in Karachi in October 2000.

You could argue that if England require levellers such as helpful bowling conditions to allow them to compete they might simply not be a very good side. Certainly this squad would be ranked outsiders if this event was to be played in Asia or Australia.

But the disappointment for England is that it appears there may be no home advantage to them in hosting the Champions Trophy. The white Kookaburra ball seems to offer their bowlers little swing and the pitches seem to have few of the characteristics that might usually define English conditions. Even the appearance of the sun - a rare visitor to the English cricket season of late - has appeared to mock them and reduce the potency of their seasons and exacerbate the limitations of their batsmen.

Might there be other options who could have offered an alternative, more aggressive method? Of course. But for all the potential of Ben Stokes, who did himself no favours after being sent home from the Lions tour of the, Alex Hales, who didn't take his chance as a senior player on the same tour, James Taylor or James Vince, much of England's success in recent times has been built upon the solid starts provided by the current top three. It would have been extraordinary to change a winning formula after the success of 2012. Besides, it is too late to change the Champions Trophy squad now; alterations are only allowed in the event of injury. But if England are unsuccessful in the Champions Trophy, all four younger men will come into consideration ahead of the 2015 World Cup.

It may be unfair to judge England's batsmen too harshly, anyway. While many of them were chastised for making starts but then losing their wickets, the problem at the Ageas Bowl, at least, was that their target was simply too large. They have been forced to take too many risks, too early in their innings and lost their wickets as a result.

There was some encouraging news for England on Tuesday. Finn and Broad both took a full part in training and bowled with good pace, though whether they play on Wednesday remains to be seen.

With the series gone, England may well experiment a little at Trent Bridge. There is a strong case for resting James Anderson and, despite this being his home ground, Graeme Swann too. James Tredwell could come into the side and, if England decide to keep Finn and Broad on ice - in Finn's case almost literally as he nurses his sore shins - Boyd Rankin could play, too. Bell described facing him as "absolutely horrible" and, while he has rarely enjoyed the sustained fitness levels to maintain the consistency required to be a top international bowler, there is little doubt that, on his day, Rankin, with his height, pace and movement, can be a nasty proposition for any batsman. What sense it makes to now play a man not included in the Champions Trophy squad may well be asked.

Ravi Bopara will come into contention, too. While his form with the bat has receded, his worth as a bowler has increased and he could, perhaps in partnership with Jonathan Trott and Joe Root, fill a role as the fifth bowler. He also has a reputation as a skilled polisher of a cricket ball. In a game of fine margins, such factors can be crucial.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments