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Woakes drop betrays England panic

In the end it was less a contest and more of an execution. On the ground where, not so long ago, England retained the Ashes, they sunk to one of the worst defeats in their World Cup history. There have been more competitive seal clubbings.

To some extent, you can't blame England. As Australia's players took a succession of outstanding catches - catches even more impressive than their brilliant batting and hostile bowling - it became undeniable that they are simply a far better side than England. Quicker, stronger, better. The margin of victory, although diluted by an admirable but never threatening seventh-wicket partnership, did not flatter them. You might even call it a Valentine's day massacre.

But they are better than this. And the fact remains that, had Chris Woakes clung on to a relatively simple chance in the first over of the match before Aaron Finch had scored, things could have been very different.

It was not the only error England made early on. Moeen Ali was also slow to move to a chance offered by David Warner, meaning England could have dismissed both Australia openers within the first five overs. Some nervous throws necessitated desperate dives to avoid over-throws. It looked as if the occasion had got to England.

The example of Woakes is instructive. With hard hands and slow feet, Woakes gave every indication of nerves. He gave every indication that he was not quite as focused on the moment as he might have been, as if his thinking was just a little distracted. It is a catch he would expect to take nine times out of 10.

Was it simply the occasion that had bothered him? Perhaps. But it is also quite possible that disruption within the England squad added to the sense of discomfort and unsettled Woakes and co just at the moment they should have been secure and confident in their plans and roles.

England changed their plans at the last minute. Not just by dropping Ravi Bopara, but by shifting James Taylor in the batting order and demoting Woakes from his role as new-ball bowler.

In a format where role definition is vital, it indicated panic within the England management to make such changes at so late a stage. And it cannot have filled the players involved with any confidence to know that the management were so lacking in faith that they felt the need to make alterations at the 11th hour.

One of the few signs of progress in recent times had been England's ability to play a settled side. It meant that individual players could specialise in their roles and grow more comfortable in performing them.

Woakes, for example, had opened the bowling in every ODI England had played since the start of the Sri Lanka tour, 13 in total. In the only warm-up match he played, against West Indies, he took two wickets in the opening over of the match and 5 for 19 in all. Afterwards, he said he expected to take the new ball throughout the World Cup.

There are knock-on effects of such a decision. With Stuart Broad taking the new ball instead, it meant that England's two senior seamers had delivered 14 of their 20 overs by the time England had delivered 29 overs. In other words, they had only six overs between them to deliver in the last 21 of the innings. It may well have been a contributory factor in England conceding an eye-watering 102 runs from their final nine overs and 76 from the last six. England's death bowling is killing them.

Taylor, meanwhile, had spent the last few months familiarising himself with the No. 3 position. He had batted there in every ODI he had played except one - where he went in No. 5 - since coming back into the team in Colombo in December and right up until the warm-up match he played a few days ago. He had never batted at No. 6 in an ODI before. Asking him to go from the No. 3 position to playing the role of finisher is akin to asking your dentist to do your plumbing.

Equally, Gary Ballance was hardly given the best chance to succeed. While he had impressed in the warm-up match against Pakistan, he had not played a List A game since September 2. He was not in the ODI squad that toured Sri Lanka and it was hardly surprising that he looked off the pace here.

It is not that any of these decisions are necessarily wrong. Ballance may well develop into a fine No. 3, Taylor an excellent No. 6 and Woakes a fine first- or second-change bowler.

The problem is the timing. England have been preparing for this World Cup for months. It has not crept up on them. To be changing plans at this late stage makes a mockery of their preparations. It sends an uncertain, equivocal message into the dressing room from the management just at the time when nothing should distract, or create doubts.

The job of the coach is less about suggesting technical adjustments than it is about creating an environment in which players can perform to the best of their ability. By making such changes so late in the day, Peter Moores destabilised the dressing room and invited doubt into the minds of his players. It seems that, on the eve of his biggest match since he returned to the coaching role, he panicked.

So perhaps it is not surprising that Woakes' mind was clouded when that ball flew towards him. Perhaps it was not surprising that he was not in the perfect frame of mind. Perhaps it is not surprising that England looked nervous and skittish. On the biggest stage of all, they suffered stage fright.