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Feature

England are behind on their World Cup studies - but there's still plenty of time to cram

Jos Buttler's side retain faith in their fundamentals despite fifth ODI defeat in a row

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
31-Jan-2023
England's recent ODI form has given Jos Buttler a bit of a headache  •  Getty Images and Cricket Australia

England's recent ODI form has given Jos Buttler a bit of a headache  •  Getty Images and Cricket Australia

Anyone who has ever worked to a deadline knows how exquisitely zen the onset of panic can be. It doesn't work every time, or for everyone, but sometimes - particularly for those who know they have the aptitude but find the application harder to come by - there's nothing quite like a ticking clock to focus the mind and force the issue at hand.
So wakey wakey, England's world-beating 50-over team. We see you there at the back of the class, feet up on the table, yawning your way through your mocks in Australia and South Africa. But, with eight months to go until the defence of the title so thrillingly won at Lord's back in 2019, and with just four more ODIs to come this side of the summer, perhaps now's the moment to allow some urgency to drive the agenda?
Or perhaps, on second thoughts, now really isn't the time. Life moves pretty fast, as another famous slacker, Ferris Bueller, once put it. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
After all, England spent most of 2022 proving - to one extreme or another - that a positive mental attitude can overcome all obstacles, be it a record of one win in 17 prior to Brendon McCullum's appointment as Test coach, or the seizing of the T20 World Cup in spite of a litany of injuries that would have derailed a less composed squad.
And so, even though Jos Buttler's men have just flunked their way to five consecutive ODI defeats - a run of failure unmatched by England since the summer of 2014 - there is still plenty justification for taking it easy right now, and trusting that the team's proven knowledge of their subject matter will more than compensate for a lack of exhaustive cramming between now and the big day.
After all, what's the point of scaling endless peaks if you're not permitted to climb back down to base camp occasionally, to take stock of your latest achievement and gird your loins to go again? Barely two months have elapsed since England won the World Cup! But don't you dare rest on your laurels… there's a World Cup to win!
It's little wonder that, in response to a recent Twitter enquiry about the cause of the team's apparent downturn in white-ball fortunes, Ben Stokes - the main man of 2019 and current Bazballer-in-chief, who announced his ODI retirement last summer due to the insane workload he was facing across formats - responded: "Begins with S ends with E and has chedul in there as well".
Whatever the nuance of their current situation, there's certainly no sense that England are right back to square one in their preparations for their World Cup defence. There's been a lack of finesse to their efforts from 2020 to date, with 15 wins and 14 losses since that momentous day at Lord's, but the team remains - by a whisker - the most attacking batting line-up in the world in that period, rattling along at 6.14 runs per over, compared to India's next-best figure of 6.13.
And as Moeen Ali, who featured in that 2014 downturn, put it in the wake of England's series-sealing loss in Bloemfontein on Sunday, the current squad is not "in a position like before [the 2015 World Cup], where we were terrible and building a team".
"We're more experienced, used to different conditions, and going to India where we've played a lot of IPL, I feel we'll be ready to go," Moeen added. "Results don't show it yet, but I think we will be better than we were."
And yet, do England even have a chance of being as good as they were not so long ago? Regardless of the stars who may or may not bring their A games for the main event, the bald stats of their ODI performances between the last two World Cups are extraordinary, and point to the extent to which the ECB has given up on the format that, for four years up until 2019, it seemed to care for more than any other.
Between their elimination from the 2015 World Cup and their victory at Lord's in 2019, England played 98 ODIs, winning a hefty 65 of them - or two in every three. They used 32 players in that period, but the core remained extraordinarily stable. Excluding Jofra Archer, who only qualified on the eve of the tournament (but including Alex Hales, whom England weren't afraid to banish in the same timeframe in spite of his experience) each of the 12 men who formed the core of that World Cup 15 played at least half of the available games, with Eoin Morgan himself missing just six.
Compare that to the current febrile situation. Since the World Cup win, England have played 32 ODIs, with just 11 more scheduled before their defence gets underway. Already, however, they've churned through 37 players, of whom just four have featured in more than 20 games. And if those stats are skewed by the Covid outbreak in July 2021 that forced England to field, in effect, their third XI for three matches against Pakistan, then equally the squad has lacked the volume of contests to mitigate for such holes in their preparation.
In the three full years between the last two World Cups, England played nothing less than 18 ODIs annually, with a high of 24 in 2018, with which Morgan's men perfected the front-running attitude that allowed them to embrace the mantra of favourites. In three complete years since 2019, however, they've played 9, 9 and 12 - their lowest workload in the format since 1995, offering barely even an opportunity to keep their muscle memory attuned.
Stokes, incidentally, was the 22nd player to feature in the format in this post-2019 period. He made his ODI comeback against India in March 2021, 20 months after his heroics against New Zealand, but then binned off the format ten sporadic matches later, protesting with some justification that he could not give "100% to the shirt" while also giving his all to the rebooting of England's Test fortunes.
He may yet be persuaded back for the defence of the title he did so much to secure. The fact that Stokes went 18 months between T20I appearances didn't exactly prove to be an imposition on his team-mates come the crunchy end of the most recent global tournament, but perhaps more pertinently - given Stokes' determination not to be seen to be picking and choosing - no-one else within the set-up has been able to make a concerted play for his role.
Firstly, and most extraordinarily, England's best players just don't play enough 50-over cricket any more. It's a bizarre point of protest in the context of the modern calendar, but that's the choice that the ECB has made. Even before the 2019 crown had been secured, the onset of the Hundred had guaranteed that the Royal London Cup, and by extension ODIs themselves, would be reduced to a development competition. Now, that precedent has been adopted elsewhere in the world - not least with South Africa's introduction of the SA20, where to judge by the fervour of their consecutive wins in Bloemfontein, the sweet release of panic is already galvanising that country's diminished hopes of automatic qualification for the World Cup.
For England, however, we're not there yet. Joe Root and the injured Jonny Bairstow will surely be part of the World Cup discussion come the sharp end of the preparation, but not before the IPL and the Ashes. And even Harry Brook, England's coming man across formats, has played a grand total of two 50-over matches in the past four years. Prior to his debut against South Africa last week, his previous List A appearance had come in a washed-out contest for Yorkshire against Durham in May 2019.
At some stage, presumably, we will be obliged to care about England's troubling lack of preparation. At some stage, presumably, England themselves will be obliged to care about their troubling lack of preparation. But that moment simply has not yet arrived. And to judge by the global schedule, it might not be upon us until the eve of the examination itself.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket