England in South Africa 2015-16 February 15, 2016

England pay for Wile E. Coyote moment

It was the series that got away from England but if a young team can learn lessons from what went wrong, especially in the final two matches, then the future remains bright

England's bold approach to one-day cricket is laudable, but the batting needs to find a touch finesse © Getty Images

It felt like a case of one step forward, two steps back for England. Or perhaps that should be two steps forward, three steps back, after they became only the fourth side to be defeated in an ODI series having taken a 2-0 lead. Football sages sometimes call that the most dangerous scoreline and so it proved for England.

Was there an element of complacency about letting their advantage slip? A week ago, ahead of the Centurion match, Reece Topley was boldly discussing England's chances of wrapping up the series and then pushing on for 5-0. AB de Villiers' assessment that the tourists "look confident but not unbeatable" turned out to be more shrewd.

England's one-day revival over the last nine months has not been merely a confidence trick but their uninhibited approach, particularly with the bat, is clearly founded on a fearless approach to failure. Given the cultural reboot that Eoin Morgan and Trevor Bayliss have been trying to effect, it makes sense to nurture that mentality, even if it leads to the sort of spluttering efforts that undermined England in the last two matches.

"No surrender!" has become a war cry for a team that regularly used to run up the white flag in limited-overs cricket. The Road Runner approach has allowed for totals such as the 399 for 9 England racked up in Bloemfontein - following on from their first 400-plus total, against New Zealand at Edgbaston, last year - but they have occasionally been left looking more like Wile E. Coyote, running out over the cliff edge, legs whirring on thin air.

Crash landings are the inevitable corollary. Being dismissed twice without seeing out their overs - there were 13 deliveries unbowled in Johannesburg and 30 in the Cape Town decider - might well have cost England the series but Morgan had already set out his thinking back in June, when his side were bowled out for 302 in 45.2 overs at the Ageas Bowl and lost by three wickets to New Zealand.

"It's not a huge thing for me that we have to bat 50 overs, it doesn't disappoint me," Morgan said afterwards. "We're trying to change our process and mindset with the bat, which may take time."

England of course went on to beat New Zealand and followed that up with a narrow defeat against the World Champions, Australia - having threatened to come back from 2-0 down themselves - and victory over Pakistan in the UAE. If Adil Rashid had held on to a relatively straightforward chance off Chris Morris at the Wanderers on Friday evening, Morgan would surely have been celebrating a third series win out of four.

Fielding was the area Bayliss chose to focus on after de Villiers stepped into the breach to lead his side home at Newlands. But while it seems neither coach nor captain will be tempering England's attacking instincts with the bat, part of the learning process must be about recognising when to exercise a little self-denial and play the situation as well as the ball.

Eking out a dozen more runs in Johannesburg, where England lost by one wicket, could have been decisive, while soft dismissals for Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes and Rashid in Cape Town - with plenty of time left to bat and Alex Hales looking assured at the other end - did not bear the hallmark of smart cricket. Sometimes a tactical retreat is preferable to a rout.

England are intent on sticking with their new philosophy - there is no zealot like a convert, after all - and the hope is that such skirmishes will harden them for the real challenge of ODI tournaments to come, firstly in next year's Champions Trophy and then the 2019 World Cup.

In the meantime, questions of personnel and team balance will come to the fore. Hales had a watershed series and may soon feel as comfortable as an ODI opener as he does in T20s; Jason Roy was less successful, after encouraging returns against Australia and Pakistan, but Joe Root's prodigious form at No. 3 made the top order appear blast proof. Hales and Root were involved in 50-plus partnerships in every match but, a Jos Buttler hundred and twin fifties for Ben Stokes aside, the rest of the batting was fitful.

Morgan's own dip in form was significant but, after averaging 58.00 since June until the start of the South Africa series, it need not be alarming. History has shown that it does not take much for Morgan to click back into form and a score in either of the last two ODIs could also have been the difference between defeat and victory.

Should England be trying to find room for another specialist batsman, such as James Taylor? Can Stokes translate his indisputably titanic potential as a Test player into the white-ball formats? These will be questions for when Sri Lanka arrive at the start of the English season.

Some of the issues with the batting are bound up with the composition of the bowling attack and England may need to question whether conditions - in South Africa or England - support playing two spinners. Moeen and Rashid were England's most economical bowlers in this series but neither fulfilled a particularly attacking role (Moeen took five wickets at 47.00, Rashid five at 45.40); Moeen also appears to have regressed with the bat, having averaged 13.77 from 13 innings with a highest score of 21 since moving down from opener to No. 7.

The absence of Steven Finn and, to a lesser extent, Mark Wood and Liam Plunkett through injury was another factor. England's seam bowling lacked for express pace and Woakes, Stuart Broad, Chris Jordan and David Willey each managed a sole wicket apiece. Teams have begun to prioritise wicket-taking above economy in these heady times but England failed to dismiss South Africa over the five matches - nine down in Johannesburg being the closest they came.

Plenty for England's gurus to pick through then but the ground still appears fertile. Vital signs of maturity, too, in the development of Hales and Topley, as well as the measured way victory was achieved in Port Elizabeth. From 2-0 up to 3-2 down sounds like something perpetrated by the hapless England of old but recent experience tells us things could be far worse.

Just over a year ago, they were starting a World Cup campaign that ranks alongside the Battle of Balaclava and the Darien Scheme as synonyms for failure. There were bound to be bumps on the long road back.

Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Clad on February 17, 2016, 15:52 GMT

    @D.S.A Oh yes I had forgotten that SA had won a substantial amount of trophies away from home. Criticise England & Morgan as much as you like, anyone apart from the keyboard warriors that this site is littered with will tell you that their progress is manifold. I really can't be bothered with this argument any longer. Sleep well.

  • Devinderpal Singh on February 17, 2016, 15:31 GMT

    @simply: Lol. So his quote means a lot? Who expects an opposition player to criticise their opponent, even when they deserve it? It is rare to see it. Either a player will praise the opposition (rightly or wrongly), or they will say nothing. How much criticism do you hear? I recall after England lost 5:0 in Australia that Michael Clarke said "England played some hard, tough cricket"...take what you want from that, given its meaninglessness. Similarly, praise from opposition players is often over-done. Also, given that England are hosting the ICC events in 2017 and 2019, it is a fact that Eng are going to be stronger (everyone knows that the host nation is tougher at home, or do you need de Villiers to tell you that too?...Apparently so. The point, however, is that England require home conditions, otherwise they are pretty awful in ICC events (Kieswetter, Lumb and Pietersen won the 2010 WT20 for England; all of whom are products of the English system, yes? Lol). I hope that helps.

  • Clad on February 17, 2016, 14:03 GMT

    @D.S.A & other Morgan critics. These are the words of AB DeVilliers just a day or so ago, when asked about England & Morgan:

    "They are a fantastic one-day team," he said. "To come back from rock bottom in that 2015 World Cup. The talent was always there but mentally they had to get through a few obstacles. Morgs played a big part in that. Even though he didn't have a great series with the bat, he still had the right body language. He is the right man to take England forward. They will be a team to deal with in the next few years, especially at the 2017 Champions Trophy and 2019 World Cup'.

    I hope that helps.

  • David on February 17, 2016, 8:33 GMT

    This England side is fun to watch, even when they lose. The WC side were not fun to watch even when they won. Keep playing this way I say, I'd rather they get 280 all out in 46 overs then 250 for 5 in 50.

  • Richard on February 17, 2016, 7:46 GMT

    These are the games where they can push hard and see where the limit is. Failing a few times helps them to judge the pace of innings in the future.

  • Devinderpal Singh on February 16, 2016, 17:37 GMT

    "History has shown that it does not take much for Morgan to click back into form". He went 2 years before the WC without doing much. Maybe he'll click AFTER the WT20, just when it matters... "a score in either of the last two ODIs could also have been the difference between defeat and victory". But he didn't, and Eng lost both matches partly due of it, so what are you proving? That Morgan fails when it matters? I agree.

    "...These will be questions for when Sri Lanka arrive at the start of the English season". Why? The numerous limited-overs series before the SL series will answer those limited-overs-related questions, and more, not the HOME series against SL. How ludicrous.

    "There were bound to be bumps on the long road back". If the favourites, India, fail to win the tournament, such excuses will not be accepted by its fans, so why should Eng fans accept it? And also, what "long road back" are Eng heading back to? They haven't dominate limited-overs cricket whatsoever, lol. P4 of 4.

  • Devinderpal Singh on February 16, 2016, 17:29 GMT

    "It's not a huge thing for me that we have to bat 50 overs, it doesn't disappoint me". And this is the captain? Lol. He might as well say "Bat like there is no tomorrow", "Don't even try to utilise the deliveries you have remaining; it doesn't matter", "talk about being aggressive during interviews as it sounds great"...urgh.

    "soft dismissals for Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes and Rashid in Cape Town". How about you look at the failures that bat higher in the order FIRST? They are specialists, and those failures were Roy and Morgan. Couldn't they have stayed with Hales, or was it a different game in the same innings? Lol. Of course it was, wasn't it?

    "the hope is that such skirmishes will harden them for the real challenge of ODI tournaments to come, firstly in next year's Champions Trophy and then the 2019 World Cup". Already, the excuses are out as this tourney is not viewed as a "real challenge". This tourney is being dismissed, but if Eng do well, it won't be. How convenient. P3 of 4.

  • Devinderpal Singh on February 16, 2016, 17:12 GMT

    England's failure at the WC happened under Morgan; to say captaincy was forced on him is ridiculous as he can always reject it, so accepting it and saying it came too soon is nonsense. Changing the team before the 1st match was his choice. Not changing after defeat to Aus was his choice. Not changing after defeat to New Zealand (and what a defeat) was his choice. The easy victory against Scotland apparently justified not changing the team against Sri Lanka, which was his choice, and SL went on to humiliate Eng with the bat. Only making 2 changes by the 5th match, for a side that was LOSING is unjustifiable. Benching 2 players (Tredwell and Bopara), who should've been starters, but played in no meaningful match, is unjustifiable, and it all happened under Morgan (btw, Morgan flopped as a batsman), but with Strauss in charge, Morgan gets his backing. Even though Eng are 3rd favs by the bookmakers, they will flop, even though getting out of the group gets a team into the semis. P2 of 4.

  • Devinderpal Singh on February 16, 2016, 17:10 GMT

    Geez, more bias. "the cultural reboot that Eoin Morgan and Trevor Bayliss have been trying to effect". Let's look at Morgan's contribution. Before the last World Cup, but after the Tri-series against Australia and India, a lot of regular England pundits were mostly happy with Eng as Bell had scored 180+ against a Victoria XI side, and that Eng had beaten India during that series, to reach the final. Even when the team was announced for Eng's 1st match, people were, for some reason, happy with the eleven; that Bopara was being replaced by Ballance, who hadn't played a match for 6 months. The only opposition people had with the team was that Taylor was being moved to 6. Anderson and Broad was absolutely fine for these fans, as was Bell and Ballance's presence, as "there were no alternatives at that point", which is rubbish. I predicted England's biggest game would be against Bangladesh, and that B'desh would have a good chance of winning; I was proven correct on both counts. P1 of 4.

  • Prem on February 16, 2016, 12:10 GMT

    Drop Morgan and bring in James Taylor. Root to captain. Morgan's thoughtlessness has cost England many a match in the last two years and his batting is inconsistent. You cannot expect Butler to bail the side out every time,

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