England v South Africa, Champions Trophy, semi-final, The Oval June 18, 2013

England seek to answer critics again

They know their approach to the format is not universally appreciated but victory over a strong South Africa will put England into the final
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In the run-up to the Champions Trophy, Jonathan Trott had a cunning plan. Inspired by Shane Warne's regular revelations that he had invented a 'new delivery', Trott was keen for the world to know that he had invented a new shot.

"Tell them I've been working on it for ages and I think I've got it right now," he said. "I'm ready to unveil it."

And what was the shot?

"It's a block. It's a new block. Tell them I've found a new way to block the hall-volley and full-toss. They'll like that."

While Trott was playfully making light of his reputation as an unhurried batsman, there was, perhaps, a hint of irritation behind his words. He, like several of his team-mates, could be forgiven for feeling unappreciated of late.

It's not hard to see why. A few weeks ago, England won a Test in ten sessions only to see their tactics questioned. Then their bowlers produced a performance of great skill to overwhelm Australia and they were accused of ball-tampering. And all the while, the top three in ODI cricket - a top three that helped them to a record 10 successive ODI victories and No. 1 in the rankings last year - are talked about in terms that suggest they are England's greatest weakness. They know that, even if they win the Ashes, people will diminish the achievement as Australia will be dismissed as no-hopers. England can win all the games they like; there are some critics that will never be won over.

Some of the criticism is fair; some is ludicrous. The ball-tampering allegations, for example, have developed without a shred of evidence. Despite the plethora and quality of cameras, there are no incriminating pictures, no damning TV footage and no allegation or report from the umpires. It is the mentality of the lynch mob that sustains such accusations.

Trott divides opinions more than most. He has a batting average (51.71) more than 20% higher than any man to have batted in 20 innings for England and a strike-rate (76.52) very similar to established 'greats' such as Kumar Sangaakkara (who has a batting average of 39.13 and a strike-rate of 75.95), Mahela Jayawardene (33.40 and 78.43) and Michael Clarke (44.69 and 78.23). Few argue that they are the problem in their respective teams.

But perhaps there is a grain of truth in some criticism. It is said, for example, that Trott is the perfect man when chasing 270, but limited when chasing 350. And it is true. But it is surely worth remembering that no England side has ever chased anywhere near 350 to win an ODI. They have not even managed 310 to win. To blame Trott for something that has never been done seems to lack logic.

The killer statistic is this, though: Trott wins games for England. They have lost only five of the 23 ODIs in which Trott has played since the start of 2012 while, in the six games without him, England have been beaten four times and bowled out for under 200 on three occasions. Trott is not perfect, of course, but if there is a player in county cricket who can beat that record - Marcus Trescothick or Kevin Pietersen apart - he has not made himself obvious.

And that is the key point. For while England may not have the best side or the best method of all the teams left in the Champions Trophy, they can argue with some evidence that they have made the best of the options they have at their disposal.

"I think the top order have done their job pretty well so far. We've built good, solid platforms to go on and get big scores"
England captain Alastair Cook

While there are several viable alternatives in county cricket - the likes of James Taylor, Ben Stokes and Alex Hales are all fine players - it would be asking a great deal of them to replace one of England's top three and equal their statistics. Hales, who is most often mentioned as a replacement for Trott, was recently dropped by Nottinghamshire and endured a grim Lions tour of Australia where he scored few runs and was disciplined for his off-field behaviour. His time will come.

Perhaps some critics will be convinced if England win the Champions Trophy. The semi-final against South Africa at The Oval on Wednesday is a tough game and England may well have to do without Tim Bresnan or Graeme Swann. Bresnan missed training on Tuesday to be with his wife, in Yorkshire who is now long overdue the birth date of their first child, while Swann trained but remains a doubt with a tight calf. With Steven Finn and James Tredwell in reserve, England are well stocked with decent replacements.

"We haven't ruled Swann out totally yet for this game," Cook said. "But it's clearly a concern for us. We're going to have to see how he trains and see how he pulls up in the morning. We might be very cautious with him. There's one thing for certain, he won't be risked. There is no point in doing that for the fact that we've got Tredwell, who is an exceptional bowler, as well. We're very lucky in that department."

Cook admitted he "didn't really enjoy the last 10 overs at Cardiff" but reiterated his faith in England's methods and his faith in the batting line-up. While the middle-order have failed to shine in the tournament to date, Cook argued that the high-risk approach they are obliged to take as part of England's strategy was bound to result in some "hit or miss" innings.

"I think the top order have done their job pretty well so far," Cook said. "We've built good, solid platforms to go on and get big scores.

"It's always going to be a little bit hit or miss when the middle-order have to go in and strike from early. But they're sensational players at doing that. We've seen Eoin Morgan do it over the years, Jos Buttler at Trent Bridge and Ravi Bopara in the game at The Oval. You only need one of them to come off to get a big total and put the icing on the cake."

The game also gives England an opportunity to make amends for a previous failure. While most onlookers would agree that South Africa outplayed England in the 2012 series that decided who would be ranked No.1 in Tests, the England camp feel, with much justification, that they failed to do themselves justice. Problems in the dressing room may well have been the root of the problem.

That is not the case now. But against a team including the likes of Dale Steyn and Hashim Amla, whose ODI batting average of 55.92 and strike rate of 91.11 make him one of the few batsmen who can better Trott's record, South Africa remain stern opposition for even the most united team. If there is one thing England learned in 2012, it is that dropping Amla early in his innings - as they did in the Tests at The Oval and Lord's - may well lose them their opportunity to win the game.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • ballsintherightareas on June 18, 2013, 22:04 GMT

    I also recently checked the facts about England's top three. I won't repeat the exact stats here (i've posted them on some UK newspaper sites) but I will summarise:

    The strike rate of England's top three is in fact not particularly slow - fourth best of the teams in the tournament. India are out in front. The next three teams have very similar SRs.

    However, England's top three have much higher averages than those of any other team. This means they stay at the wicket longer and play a higher proportion of their innings after the initial 10 over powerplay. The SR of all teams is lower after the powerplay. In fact the average SR of batters 1 and 2 (across all teams) is about 5 points higher than the average SR of batter 3. So comparing the SRs of Amla (an opener) and Trott (a #3) is unfair as Amla will get the benefit of the powerplay much more than Trott, who due to England's openers batting long, benefits less than any other #3 in the tournament.

  • ballsintherightareas on June 19, 2013, 18:55 GMT

    Top notch article, by the way, Mr Dobell. :-)

  • ballsintherightareas on June 19, 2013, 18:44 GMT

    @Tebogo Masalesa: I didn't mean that I thought Trott has a better record than Amla. If you adjust Trott's SR up by 5 points to compare him to openers, then he has a similar average but an inferior SR, so Amla is the more valuable player. I was just saying that as a number three, we should expect Trott's SR to be lower.

    In this tournament though, Trott's record to date is: average 69.66, strike rate 89.69. Pretty hard to argue that he's not the player of the tournament so far.

  • Un_Citoyen_Indien on June 19, 2013, 11:12 GMT

    Couldn't really be bothered watching an ODI game involving England, but I decided to do so this time (what with it being a semifinal and all).

    And I just can't believe this......what're England doing wearing red outfits? They look like Zimbabwe for heaven's sake!

    No, no, no this just isn't working for me. I liked the old colour much better.

  • on June 19, 2013, 9:10 GMT

    @ballsintherightareas So by your methods Amla should be compared to the English openers. Then go ahead and explain why his record is still superior.

    Amla is a class batsman, he's ultra consistent and scores at an excellent strike rate. To suggest that he's only better than Trott because he's an opening batsman is ludicrous. I could also argue that Trott's avg is high because he doesn't face the new (swinging) ball as much as Amla does. Amla is a class batsman period...no matter who you compare him to.

  • on June 19, 2013, 8:46 GMT

    There goes George about Trott, yet again!! Great piece though. Loved Trott's new invention.

  • on June 19, 2013, 8:36 GMT

    @jackthelad - Cook's out of form? 64 from 47 balls against NZ says otherwise.

  • Yevghenny on June 19, 2013, 8:25 GMT

    unfortunately England will never silence their own critics, as their critics are always 100% correct, despite the mountains of stats that suggest they are closer to being clueless. They want to see england smash their way to 350 (or 140 all out after 15 overs) every time they play a game. Apparently this is the only way you can ever win an ODI. Despite winning 10 in a row last year and becoming #1 ranked, critics still believe this is England circa 2003. We call for youth then demand they are dropped after a handful of appearances, we call for stability and then moan that more risks aren't taken.

    The best criticism is that it puts the lower middle order under pressure to score 10 an over for the final 10 overs - a standard requirement of a t20 match where you will notice the lower middle order have quite often excelled at.

  • npc_cricketlover on June 19, 2013, 7:46 GMT

    i read half and stopped there to write this comment.I felt u are a big fan of england cricket-no issues.I agree all points i read in the first half. Coming to ball tampering issue,it hurts u people as it looked silly,then just imagine how indian fans felt when ur so called great ex-captain michaelVaughan implicated laxman of applying cream to bat to cheat hotspot during India's tour of england 2011. How apt was it for nasserHussein to call indian fielders donkeys and even now this guy in this Champ-trophy commentary never find him once appreciate whole hardheartedly Indian players(irony- he was born in India). Coming to Trott's play. He is a talented and one of the most consistent out there in todays cricket. He, Bell and Cook deserve place in both tests and odis(along with peterson who also deserves place in t20). The problem i feel lies in these three players coming in one cluster. Instead trott needs to come 2 down and eion morgan(or anyone who can make score ticking from ball one)

  • FredBoycott on June 19, 2013, 7:31 GMT

    As much as I admire Trott and his style of play I must refute any claim he has to have invented a new block. Sorry Trotty but there is not a block ever been played in the history of cricket that I have not used or invented. Straight block, low block, high block, soft hand block, bottom hand block, reverse block, ramp block, doosra block, switch hit block, top hand block, pirouette block, and the windmill block. I'm sure you have used them all but please don't claim them as you own. Carry on with the #digin and the press will grow to love you. #trottsfault

  • ballsintherightareas on June 18, 2013, 22:04 GMT

    I also recently checked the facts about England's top three. I won't repeat the exact stats here (i've posted them on some UK newspaper sites) but I will summarise:

    The strike rate of England's top three is in fact not particularly slow - fourth best of the teams in the tournament. India are out in front. The next three teams have very similar SRs.

    However, England's top three have much higher averages than those of any other team. This means they stay at the wicket longer and play a higher proportion of their innings after the initial 10 over powerplay. The SR of all teams is lower after the powerplay. In fact the average SR of batters 1 and 2 (across all teams) is about 5 points higher than the average SR of batter 3. So comparing the SRs of Amla (an opener) and Trott (a #3) is unfair as Amla will get the benefit of the powerplay much more than Trott, who due to England's openers batting long, benefits less than any other #3 in the tournament.

  • ballsintherightareas on June 19, 2013, 18:55 GMT

    Top notch article, by the way, Mr Dobell. :-)

  • ballsintherightareas on June 19, 2013, 18:44 GMT

    @Tebogo Masalesa: I didn't mean that I thought Trott has a better record than Amla. If you adjust Trott's SR up by 5 points to compare him to openers, then he has a similar average but an inferior SR, so Amla is the more valuable player. I was just saying that as a number three, we should expect Trott's SR to be lower.

    In this tournament though, Trott's record to date is: average 69.66, strike rate 89.69. Pretty hard to argue that he's not the player of the tournament so far.

  • Un_Citoyen_Indien on June 19, 2013, 11:12 GMT

    Couldn't really be bothered watching an ODI game involving England, but I decided to do so this time (what with it being a semifinal and all).

    And I just can't believe this......what're England doing wearing red outfits? They look like Zimbabwe for heaven's sake!

    No, no, no this just isn't working for me. I liked the old colour much better.

  • on June 19, 2013, 9:10 GMT

    @ballsintherightareas So by your methods Amla should be compared to the English openers. Then go ahead and explain why his record is still superior.

    Amla is a class batsman, he's ultra consistent and scores at an excellent strike rate. To suggest that he's only better than Trott because he's an opening batsman is ludicrous. I could also argue that Trott's avg is high because he doesn't face the new (swinging) ball as much as Amla does. Amla is a class batsman period...no matter who you compare him to.

  • on June 19, 2013, 8:46 GMT

    There goes George about Trott, yet again!! Great piece though. Loved Trott's new invention.

  • on June 19, 2013, 8:36 GMT

    @jackthelad - Cook's out of form? 64 from 47 balls against NZ says otherwise.

  • Yevghenny on June 19, 2013, 8:25 GMT

    unfortunately England will never silence their own critics, as their critics are always 100% correct, despite the mountains of stats that suggest they are closer to being clueless. They want to see england smash their way to 350 (or 140 all out after 15 overs) every time they play a game. Apparently this is the only way you can ever win an ODI. Despite winning 10 in a row last year and becoming #1 ranked, critics still believe this is England circa 2003. We call for youth then demand they are dropped after a handful of appearances, we call for stability and then moan that more risks aren't taken.

    The best criticism is that it puts the lower middle order under pressure to score 10 an over for the final 10 overs - a standard requirement of a t20 match where you will notice the lower middle order have quite often excelled at.

  • npc_cricketlover on June 19, 2013, 7:46 GMT

    i read half and stopped there to write this comment.I felt u are a big fan of england cricket-no issues.I agree all points i read in the first half. Coming to ball tampering issue,it hurts u people as it looked silly,then just imagine how indian fans felt when ur so called great ex-captain michaelVaughan implicated laxman of applying cream to bat to cheat hotspot during India's tour of england 2011. How apt was it for nasserHussein to call indian fielders donkeys and even now this guy in this Champ-trophy commentary never find him once appreciate whole hardheartedly Indian players(irony- he was born in India). Coming to Trott's play. He is a talented and one of the most consistent out there in todays cricket. He, Bell and Cook deserve place in both tests and odis(along with peterson who also deserves place in t20). The problem i feel lies in these three players coming in one cluster. Instead trott needs to come 2 down and eion morgan(or anyone who can make score ticking from ball one)

  • FredBoycott on June 19, 2013, 7:31 GMT

    As much as I admire Trott and his style of play I must refute any claim he has to have invented a new block. Sorry Trotty but there is not a block ever been played in the history of cricket that I have not used or invented. Straight block, low block, high block, soft hand block, bottom hand block, reverse block, ramp block, doosra block, switch hit block, top hand block, pirouette block, and the windmill block. I'm sure you have used them all but please don't claim them as you own. Carry on with the #digin and the press will grow to love you. #trottsfault

  • on June 19, 2013, 7:25 GMT

    Why would you want to block juicy full-tosses and half volleys #confused

  • on June 19, 2013, 4:33 GMT

    England's tactic of letting the top three bat at their own pace has created consistency, which was surely the aim, but it will also create a generation of English top order batsmen with deceivingly high averages and middle/lower order batsmen with deceivingly low averages. I'd suggest that 'lower order thrashing' is a confidence game, and having a low average from frequently doing it without any time to get your eye in, isn't great for your confidence.

  • SamRoy on June 19, 2013, 3:34 GMT

    Nowadays bowlers are less skillful then they used to be even 15 years ago. Not just England, every international team in fact. I am appalled by the fact that apart from Malinga there is no other bowler good enough to bowl regular toe-crushing yorkers in international cricket. Bowling yorkers is a very basic cricketing skill and a late swinging yorker aimed at the stumps is the most potent wicket-taking delivery in all forms of the game. How come bowlers don't practice that skill more often and waste their time learning 100 different variations of the slower delivery (most of which aren't all that good)?

  • gibbs.175 on June 19, 2013, 0:39 GMT

    SA should Bat first and put 260+ runs...because they usally fail to chase 225 + if England bat first ,be restricted under 200.....good luck

  • SumantB on June 19, 2013, 0:03 GMT

    If it's a high scoring game SAF wins, if it's a low scoring game it's England!!

  • cloudmess on June 18, 2013, 23:59 GMT

    George Dobell is quietly establishing himself as one of the more thoughtful of cricket writers. I was also impressed by his recent article on Chris Adams. He thinks for himself, and refuses to jump on bandwagons, unlike so many other journalists. And he always seems to keep in mind that cricket is just a game and that cricketers are human beings.

  • ballsintherightareas on June 18, 2013, 22:29 GMT

    @maximum6 Morgan's record over the last two years is an average slightly below 40 and a strike rate just below 100. Not what I'd call 'on the wane' at all. He is the perfect counterpart to Trott.

  • ballsintherightareas on June 18, 2013, 22:14 GMT

    To call Finn, who is rated #2 in the ICC rankings for ODI bowlers, a 'decent replacement' is a bit of an understatement. And Tredwell's record over the last couple of years has been far superior to that of Swann, hard as it is to believe. So I think South Africa will be pretty nervous going into this match.

    I said in an earlier comment that England have the best win/loss ratio, but if you look a their record at home, the ratio almost doubles to over 2.5 wins for every loss. Obviously that does not guarantee a win as one of those losses might come in the next two games, but based on recent results they are more likely than any of the other team to win by a significant margin.

    I have no doubt which team will be feeling the more confident.

  • jackthelad on June 18, 2013, 22:01 GMT

    Cook is the problem. He is out of form at the moment, but won't get out and let other batsmen make some runs; his captaincy is poor, tentative, over-conservative and without invention; when he's batting well, he's great - but when he's not. he's a liability.

  • ballsintherightareas on June 18, 2013, 21:54 GMT

    @gtr800 Before the tournament, I checked the ODI win/loss ratios of all teams over the last 24 months. England had the best ratio. What makes you think 'aggressive' (for which I read 'high risk, more Twenty20-style, batting') cricket is likely to result in more wins? I would argue the opposite.

    A thought experiment:

    Team A plays in a low risk batting style and always scores 250 Team B plays in a high risk batting style and alternates between scoring 200 and 350 (higher on average than team A)

    Now imaging that they always bowl their opposition out for 225.

    Which team wins more often?

    It's a very simplified example, but the principle holds true. There are no bonus points in cricket for winning by a large margin. A win by 1 run is worth the same as a win by 100 runs.

  • coldcoffee123 on June 18, 2013, 21:45 GMT

    I get a feeling that England is scared of both India and South Africa. The way the English commentators are speculating on how should England face SA, is similar to unexpectedly finding yourself on stage with the light on you. England seem to have already resigned to a semi-final defeat.

  • 2.14istherunrate on June 18, 2013, 19:43 GMT

    England will have to bowl very well v SA,particularly Amla and de V,but also be careful not underestimate the ability of the rest. Having Steyn to face will sharpen their wits and ensure complacency takes a back seat. I hope for 50 over a side, but will the weather interfere? The problem with England is not ythe top 4 but the next 4 who have not really revealed anything good apart from Bopara. Morgan's star is at least slightly waning and one questions why his own disinterest in early season here should be rewarded by further disprop-ortionate loyalty from England. He needs to produce reasons to be kept not ones to be dropped now.

  • gtr800 on June 18, 2013, 18:46 GMT

    I personally do not have a problem with England's soo called 'formula' to ODI cricket. But any strategy which is as rigid as theirs is bound to have more failures then its counterparts. In their last 6 games- England have only won 3. With the ability of their top 3 batsmen they need to play more aggressive cricket on wickets which have nothing in them such as the ones we have seen in the champions trophy. 200 of the first 40 overs is simply not good enough on a flat wicket. They surely cannot expect people to come in and hit 100-110 all the time in the last 10 overs. All this can be solved if they adjust their play according to the wicket. Even if they some how manage to win this match via their strategy and prove their critics wrong, it cannot prevail in the long run- as more often then not it asks too much from the middle order.

  • gtr800 on June 18, 2013, 18:46 GMT

    I personally do not have a problem with England's soo called 'formula' to ODI cricket. But any strategy which is as rigid as theirs is bound to have more failures then its counterparts. In their last 6 games- England have only won 3. With the ability of their top 3 batsmen they need to play more aggressive cricket on wickets which have nothing in them such as the ones we have seen in the champions trophy. 200 of the first 40 overs is simply not good enough on a flat wicket. They surely cannot expect people to come in and hit 100-110 all the time in the last 10 overs. All this can be solved if they adjust their play according to the wicket. Even if they some how manage to win this match via their strategy and prove their critics wrong, it cannot prevail in the long run- as more often then not it asks too much from the middle order.

  • 2.14istherunrate on June 18, 2013, 19:43 GMT

    England will have to bowl very well v SA,particularly Amla and de V,but also be careful not underestimate the ability of the rest. Having Steyn to face will sharpen their wits and ensure complacency takes a back seat. I hope for 50 over a side, but will the weather interfere? The problem with England is not ythe top 4 but the next 4 who have not really revealed anything good apart from Bopara. Morgan's star is at least slightly waning and one questions why his own disinterest in early season here should be rewarded by further disprop-ortionate loyalty from England. He needs to produce reasons to be kept not ones to be dropped now.

  • coldcoffee123 on June 18, 2013, 21:45 GMT

    I get a feeling that England is scared of both India and South Africa. The way the English commentators are speculating on how should England face SA, is similar to unexpectedly finding yourself on stage with the light on you. England seem to have already resigned to a semi-final defeat.

  • ballsintherightareas on June 18, 2013, 21:54 GMT

    @gtr800 Before the tournament, I checked the ODI win/loss ratios of all teams over the last 24 months. England had the best ratio. What makes you think 'aggressive' (for which I read 'high risk, more Twenty20-style, batting') cricket is likely to result in more wins? I would argue the opposite.

    A thought experiment:

    Team A plays in a low risk batting style and always scores 250 Team B plays in a high risk batting style and alternates between scoring 200 and 350 (higher on average than team A)

    Now imaging that they always bowl their opposition out for 225.

    Which team wins more often?

    It's a very simplified example, but the principle holds true. There are no bonus points in cricket for winning by a large margin. A win by 1 run is worth the same as a win by 100 runs.

  • jackthelad on June 18, 2013, 22:01 GMT

    Cook is the problem. He is out of form at the moment, but won't get out and let other batsmen make some runs; his captaincy is poor, tentative, over-conservative and without invention; when he's batting well, he's great - but when he's not. he's a liability.

  • ballsintherightareas on June 18, 2013, 22:14 GMT

    To call Finn, who is rated #2 in the ICC rankings for ODI bowlers, a 'decent replacement' is a bit of an understatement. And Tredwell's record over the last couple of years has been far superior to that of Swann, hard as it is to believe. So I think South Africa will be pretty nervous going into this match.

    I said in an earlier comment that England have the best win/loss ratio, but if you look a their record at home, the ratio almost doubles to over 2.5 wins for every loss. Obviously that does not guarantee a win as one of those losses might come in the next two games, but based on recent results they are more likely than any of the other team to win by a significant margin.

    I have no doubt which team will be feeling the more confident.

  • ballsintherightareas on June 18, 2013, 22:29 GMT

    @maximum6 Morgan's record over the last two years is an average slightly below 40 and a strike rate just below 100. Not what I'd call 'on the wane' at all. He is the perfect counterpart to Trott.

  • cloudmess on June 18, 2013, 23:59 GMT

    George Dobell is quietly establishing himself as one of the more thoughtful of cricket writers. I was also impressed by his recent article on Chris Adams. He thinks for himself, and refuses to jump on bandwagons, unlike so many other journalists. And he always seems to keep in mind that cricket is just a game and that cricketers are human beings.

  • SumantB on June 19, 2013, 0:03 GMT

    If it's a high scoring game SAF wins, if it's a low scoring game it's England!!

  • gibbs.175 on June 19, 2013, 0:39 GMT

    SA should Bat first and put 260+ runs...because they usally fail to chase 225 + if England bat first ,be restricted under 200.....good luck