England's destiny slipping through their grasp
It's been said with increasing certainty over the past 11 days of action that "The World Cup has finally come alive". It first came alive when Virender Sehwag slammed 175 against Bangladesh on the opening night; it then came alive when Bangladesh bounced back from that defeat to beat Ireland and ignite jubilant scenes in Dhaka; in between those games, it came alive when Ryan ten Doeschate gave England the fright of their lives in Nagpur, and it was most certainly alive when England responded by giving India an almighty tussle in Bangalore.
But none of those moments came close to matching the extraordinary liveliness of Ireland's triumph over England on Wednesday night. In spite of every effort from the organisers to drain the tournament of suspense, that crazy gang of Irish interlopers is on the march again. Global tournaments come to life when favoured teams are slain, and Ireland have just laid claim to one of the most prized scalps of the lot.
In so doing, finally, the permutations of this World Cup are wide open. England, having budgeted for four points from six at the midway stage of their group campaign, find themselves one point short of that tally after blowing two victories in three incredible days. That they had to settle for a share of the spoils against India, a team that had beaten them 11 times out of 12 on home soil, was forgivable, but to trip up against Ireland, and in such a sensational manner, has laid waste to all presumption about their natural progression to the quarter-finals.
Three tricky contests await in the coming days - against South Africa, Bangladesh and West Indies - and if they let their standards slip like this again, England are perfectly capable of losing all three, just as Ireland will believe they have the power to drag other stragglers into the mire as well, now that they have in their possession both the highest successful run-chase in the history of World Cup cricket, and the fastest century-maker in their instant legend, Kevin O'Brien.
Wednesday was Ireland's day, no question, but England are becoming the un-put-downable team of this tournament, and not for reasons they would covet. Like a cork bobbing on an estuary tide, they are somehow finding a way to rise and fall to match the expectations placed upon them - and that's been a pattern they've enacted with rhythmical poise ever since they floated up the Bay of Bengal to launch their warm-up phase in Fatullah. Frantic scramble against Canada; flowing triumph against Pakistan; loss of plot against Netherlands; chase for the ages against India; ultimate upset against Ireland ... thumping win against South Africa in Chennai? Surely not!
The entertainment it provides is undeniable, but England would far sooner be a joyless, ruthless, victory machine - akin to the Australian sides of the 2000s whom they seemed so set upon matching during the first half of the winter - than the mercurial Pakistan-lite outfit that they're rapidly turning out to be. Lame shot selection, dreadful fielding, and an unmistakably snarky vibe between team-mates - most notably Graeme Swann and whoever had just fumbled his latest delivery - spoke of a bunch of players who've been on the road too long, and are most likely pretty sick of the sight of one another.
"I don't tend to rank my lowest moments to be honest with you, it's not something I'm in the habit of doing," said Andrew Strauss, who can't have gone from hero to zero with quite such terminal velocity before. "But it's a bitterly disappointing day for us, there's no doubt about it. We were just thinking we were getting some momentum in this competition after the India game. We've given that away. We're not out of the World Cup by any means, but we're going to have to be better than we were today."
It's hard to see what England can do for a quick fix, however, after the pasting they have just been subjected to. The result might well focus the mind, just as it seemed the Netherlands near-miss had done - but focus it on what, exactly? When Tamim Iqbal starts to go bonkers in Chittagong in a week's time, or when Imran Tahir ties the lower order in Chawla-style knots in Chennai, will it really help England's mindset to know that their highest first-innings total in the history of the 50-over World Cup was insufficient to save them from defeat against Ireland?
"I backed our bowlers and our fielders to put on a display that was going to be too tough for them to chase down, but we didn't do that and we've only got ourselves to blame," said Strauss. "But there's pressure everywhere and that's the way it should be in a World Cup. Hopefully it'll galvanise us as a team, because the equation is pretty simple now. We can't afford any slip-ups and we're going to have to go out there and deliver."
There's no point in second-guessing how England will perform from this point on. However, the faultlines are all too apparent, in far too many areas of the team, with hindsight now giving Andy Flower's end-of-match grimace against India a more knowing and sinister vibe. He's seen how effective his team can be when it's at the top of its game - never more so than at Melbourne and Sydney two months ago - and therefore he knows better than anyone how far from the mark they are right now. After all, if two of the best individual performances in England's history weren't sufficient to force a victory over India, it follows that anything less than a tour de force was going to leave them open to defeat.
The defining feature of Ireland's innings - aside from the torrent of Kevin O'Brien sixes - was the absolute confidence that scoring opportunities would arise, even when the asking rate refused until the 48th over to dip as low as a run a ball. The defining feature of England's innings, by contrast, was of hot-blooded hitting at inopportune moments - first Strauss and Kevin Pietersen gave their starts away fecklessly, then the tail subsided in a wave of indisciplined slogging, the like of which Ireland didn't once consider matching.
Paul Collingwood and Matt Prior were once again the most culpable in that respect. If they had been listless against India, they were positively unhinged against the Irish, as both men lost their shape at the crease as soon as it became apparent that they could not find the boundary at will.
Collingwood, in particular, is currently batting as if he's on a weekend at Bernie's. Among all-time England six-hitters, he's second only to Andrew Flintoff, but his solitary maximum on Wednesday was a gift-wrapped half-volley after a stream of ugly smeared singles. Ravi Bopara, who spanked 45 from 16 balls in his most recent ODI innings against Bangladesh in July, is the only man who can come close to applying the touch of class that has been missing since the demise of Eoin Morgan. It's the one sadness of this tournament that such a fine finisher has been denied the stage on which to shine, but perhaps it's karma as well. Had Morgan been batting in those final five overs, there's no way England would have settled for 33 barrel-scraped runs. And it's all the less likely that his former countrymen would have won ...
Other concerns refuse to go away. For the third match running, England's bowlers have been unable to recreate the pack mentality that propelled last year's World Twenty20 challenge. In consecutive innings Swann, Tim Bresnan, then Swann again have returned combined figures of 10 for 130 in 30 overs, which is the sort of all-out score that most Test nations would envisage against the Associates.
However, through a persistent and debilitating failure of their colleagues to hit the right length (most notably Anderson in the first two games, then the ailing Stuart Broad against Ireland) the remainder of England's attack has been bludgeoned into submission at every conceivable turn, by Sehwag in the Powerplay, Tendulkar in the middle overs, O'Brien and ten Doeschate at the death. The mantra that won England the Ashes - give the batsmen nothing to hit whatsover - has been lost in translation to the one-day format.
And talking of such format switches, there's also the peculiar case of Jonathan Trott to consider. His Test-match temperament allowed him to slip into exalted company during his 92 against the Irish, as he joined Viv Richards and Kevin Pietersen in reaching 1000 ODI runs in a record 21 innings. However, more speed, less haste is the rule by which one-day batsmen have these days to adher, and for a batsman as naturally reactive as Trott, his feats of crease occupation are starting to look problematic when there's an agenda that needs to be set. In each of England's last four matches in which they've batted first, he's amassed scores of 84 not out, 102, 137 and 92. England have achieved victory in just one of those contests, at Adelaide, and have failed to defend two scores in excess of 325.
England can and should extricate themselves from the mess they now find themselves in - despite their antipathy to overdog status, they remain a fiercely combative outfit. But having allowed themselves to give Ireland their leg-up, they cannot afford to let their destiny slip further from their grasp - the Irish, after all, have the Dutch still to come as their game in hand. And as for the vanquished, there are plenty other sides who will fancy a piece of a deeply-wounded team. Starting with AB de Villiers and chums on Sunday.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo