The clock is ticking for England on their World Cup preparations and ambitions. Either that or it's the bomb under the captain Alastair Cook's seat that has had its fuse lit again over the last four ODIs. It's probably both.
The change in momentum has been astonishing. Cook had appeared to have put many of his, and his team's critics to bed by the end of the Oval Test, but he and the ECB management will be concerned by how quickly the tide has shifted since then. It has taken just three ODI defeats for many to question Cook's place in the side, his leadership and the team's performance.
To be fair, India are a very good one-day side, and back in May this one-day series looked likely to be the toughest test of the summer. Back then England would have been hoping for a few quick wins against the Sri Lankans to settle the nerves, ease the new management in, and put the winter's issues to bed. Sri Lanka, of course, read a different script altogether and beat England in all three formats.
Continued underperformance in the first two Tests against India was enough to create a small storm over the value of Cook as captain and the performance of his side. India didn't have the depth and experience to maintain their Lord's heroics in the Tests, but they have got their mojo back with the white ball, and their dominance of England in this series has been an extraordinary turnaround. Not unlike that of England after their Lord's Test defeat.
So, with under six months to go until the World Cup, with many writing the team's chances off already, where are England?
The first question should be: How important is one-day cricket to England?
Of course they always want to win one-day games and world tournaments. England always go in with the best intentions, but do they really give it their full attention? When does one-day cricket become more important, or as important as Test cricket? A year away from a major tournament? Or on the eve of a World Cup?
Test cricket is the more dominant form of the game in England, and winning the Ashes more important than winning any World Cup - at least until the eve of a tournament. Players' workloads are managed around playing the best team in Test cricket and "rotating" players into the one-day set up as a way of gaining experience. That's just the way it is and the opposite is probably the case for India. The evidence is in the teams' comparative Test and ODI records of late. Sharpening your focus on one-day cricket and the World Cup six months out is too late.
The problem area for England is the period after the opening Powerplay and leading into the second Powerplay. To make consistent scores of 300-plus they have to be closer to 190 than 160 by the time the second Powerplay comes round, assuming it is taken after 35 overs
I don't agree, though, with the theory that England have picked completely the wrong set of players to have a run at the World Cup. Jason Roy, James Vince and James Taylor are exciting cricketers and in an ideal world it would be nice to see one of them involved in the one-day set-up now. They could all be involved in the next World Cup and I'm a big fan of all of them. But I hear many critics saying they should all be involved and then struggling to say who they should replace in the squad. We should all remember that it is often the case that you are regarded as a better player when you are out of the team.
The real problem is how England have played. The team comes first but individual contributions win you games of cricket. Joe Root gets a hundred at Headingley and England win; it's not rocket science. Moeen Ali was the only other England player to score a half-century in the series and that was from No. 7. That sort of cameo should get you to a score of 300-plus if one of the top five has given you the platform to work from. Not just get you to a position of respectability. Three hundred should be the benchmark in Australia and New Zealand during the World Cup and one of the top five has to make a major contribution for that to happen. In each of the matches this series, the Indians have had at least one individual contribution of 50-plus from one of their top five. Two of these have been converted into hundreds.
To get to totals of 300-plus consistently England will have to get a couple of key things right. Firstly, the individual contributions. Secondly, they have to play with a higher tempo through all periods of the innings. They don't have to go out swinging from ball one but slight improvements during the four periods (overs 0-10, 11-35, 36-40, 41-50) can make all the difference.
If England can keep wickets in hand the two areas they will be least concerned about are the 36-40- and 41-50-over periods. They have the potential to do a lot of damage at the back end with a middle and lower order that could include a combination of Eoin Morgan, Jos Buttler, Ali, Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes and Chris Jordan.
The first ten overs are a popular discussion point. Cook, Alex Hales and Ian Bell should be able to give England the start they want. Hales has to play his way and he's at his best when he is positive, gets in strong positions and goes at the ball. In this series he appears to have gone into his shell. Cook simply hasn't been at his best for the majority of the summer. He scrapped to some runs during the Test series but this is less easy in one-day cricket. He has been beating the ball, not stroking it, like a high-handicap golfer would, compared to a tour pro, and he still looks technically out of sync. But he can play one-day cricket and he can have an impact in the World Cup.
If England are around 55 to 60 runs for the loss of one wicket they will have a great platform to work from. This should be achievable for these players with strong cricket shots, good running between the wickets, and percentage risk-taking. A lot has been said about England's approach compared to India's during this period but India's method is actually the same as England's. They build, play strong shots and look to set up the rest of the innings. This is reflected in the fact that England bettered India in three out of the four matches this series in the first Powerplay.
The problem area for England is the period after the opening Powerplay and leading into the second Powerplay. To make consistent scores of 300-plus, they have to be closer to 190 than 160 by the time the second Powerplay comes round, assuming they continue to take it after 35 overs, and not rely solely on one of their big hitters to have his day to get the side to 300. If England can get to a score of 55 after ten overs, to reach 190 after 35 overs they need to score a fairly modest 135 runs at a rate of 5.4 runs an over. The problem is how they achieve this, and the two consistent talking points of this series, and perhaps over the last two decades, have been to do with how England play spin and how they maintain momentum during this period.
Firstly, it is about having options against spin. Options to play back and forward, to get off strike, to play the "trick" shots, and most importantly perhaps, to still be prepared to hit the ball out of the park. It is not one or the other.
Getting off strike is important and the sweep and reverse sweep are good options, as much to manipulate the field to where you want it as to create gaps elsewhere. But it is boundaries that really hurt spinners, and with five men in the circle at all times they are always an option. Just five boundaries in a spinner's ten overs will make a major difference to his figures. In order to be confident of playing these strokes you need to practise them again and again, not just until you get them right but until you don't get them wrong. So that under pressure, out in the middle when it matters, you can execute correctly. It's then about playing the percentages well and good decision-making.
Creating momentum through this period is one thing the Indians definitely do better than England. They build partnerships and quite quickly go through the gears; always prepared to attack and take on the boundary option, even with boundary riders out. As a team England historically ease back during this period, and can fall into the trap of "just playing". If England want to get to 190 by the end of the 35th over they won't be able to do it just by working the ball around. They have to be brave, take good, strong, high-percentage options and hit boundaries as well as take ones and twos.
With the ball England have to be better with their basic skills - landing the ball consistently in the right place and forcing the batsman to be proactive in order to score. Their other major concern will be identifying the bowlers to shut games down: the finishers. So many matches are won and lost at the back end of either innings.
In Australia, having four front-line seamers, with James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Steven Finn being three of them, is a good tactic. With these three available, fit and firing, England will have the ability to get wickets upfront, the one sure way of slowing the opposition's momentum. It would be a little tough on James Tredwell but in Australia, Ali and Root could perform the spinner's role between them.
Timing is also an important factor and peaking next February is the key for England's hopes. Before then, of course, the team travels to Sri Lanka for seven ODIs before Christmas. That series could be tougher than this last one. Sri Lanka are hard to beat in one-day cricket in any environment but at home they are possibly the hardest.
The key preparation period for England will be the tri-series with Australia and India before the World Cup. However, if the series in Sri Lanka goes as badly as it possibly could, pressure will mount on the England set-up and change will be demanded again. The damage done could be hard to undo.