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Feature

England, India, and the problem with spotlighting 'big matches'

Both have been high-quality teams in limited-overs cricket in recent years, but have few title wins to show for it - and that, by popular opinion, is an issue

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
09-Nov-2022
Jos Buttler speaks to his team ahead of England's semi-final against India  •  Getty Images

Jos Buttler speaks to his team ahead of England's semi-final against India  •  Getty Images

When India face England in a knockout match at a world event, it is inevitable that their record in knockout matches is brought up. Since the two last played a knockout match against each other, in the 2013 Champions Trophy final, India have not won a title despite making it to the knockouts in five of the six limited-overs world events before this year's T20 World Cup, and England have won just one despite being acknowledged as the thought leaders in limited-overs cricket.
This fact has become an asterisk against these teams' undeniable quality in this period. However there is no empirical study that suggests that good players and teams suddenly become bad in the so-called big matches, or that otherwise ordinary teams or players can raise their game and be "clutch". The term itself is defined variously by various people depending on when they were at their most anxious watching the contest.
The fact is, teams are much more evenly matched these days. In the six world events since 2013, we have had five different champions. In one of them, we couldn't settle on a clear winner even after the Super Over. Pretty evenly matched teams come up against each other in knockout matches, they both play good cricket, and small events assume great significance.
Still, it is the nature of cricket that everything must be decided by a final, making knockouts matter much more than they should. Even the players buy into that. Moeen Ali feels England need to win more trophies to be remembered as well as the team deserves to be remembered. Captain Jos Buttler seems to agree.
"Certainly don't want to be a team that just says we played a great style of cricket," Buttler says. "You want to have tangible things that you have achieved throughout that as well. Getting to semi-finals and finals, the big prize is obviously standing there with the trophy at the end of the game, and that's what we all want to achieve.
"But we know that the way we play is going to give us the best chance of doing that. We very much stick to that and have full faith and belief that if we play to the best of our abilities with the way we want to play our cricket, that's how we're going to get to the point of lifting more trophies."
Winning trophies is good, but how can it take away from how England have completely revolutionised the way they played and have become trendsetters in the both the limited-overs formats. Buttler remembers clearly the day they made a clean break from their orthodox style of play because it happened at the Adelaide Oval in 2015 when they lost to Bangladesh and were knocked out in the group stage.
"Yeah, we were actually just talking about that in the dressing room… anytime you go back to certain grounds there's some moments or memories that were not always good ones, unfortunately. But yeah, absolutely, I think it's been clear to see the change in mindset in English cricket towards the white-ball game since that game went that way, and especially the way we've played. The way we've played has given us better results, so that gives us a lot of trust in that process that it works.
"I think even going back to the Pakistan tour, some younger guys coming into the group, there seems an engrained way of playing now in English cricket. It's been a fantastic journey to be involved in."
Can that way of playing be undermined if they lose in a "big match"? What really is a big match? How does it feel different to those playing that match? Buttler says this semi-final is a big match but more so externally.
"Externally of course it is a different game. There's probably more people in the [press] room here for a semi-final than there would be for a different game, so of course a few things feel a bit different in that sense. The game remains the same [though]. We must find a way to accept the noise around the match, but again, come back to exactly your job on the day and playing what's required from you.
"It's still a game of cricket. There's a lot of things you can't control in the game. There will probably still be a misfield, someone will bowl a wide, someone might drop a catch. All these things happen in the game, [whether] it's a semi-final or not. But we must maintain trying to play with the same level of freedom in T20 cricket. Whether it's one or two guys, whether it's a full-team performance coming down to it on the day, we must have huge belief that we can get the job done."
When it comes to India, the record of their top three in knockout matches is considered a qualifier against their quality as batters. What really happens - as it does in other matches - is that they make about the same proportion of mistakes but in these matches the mistakes have tended to bring about their dismissal. Eight matches in nine years is too rare an occurrence to develop any patterns. Rohit Sharma, India's captain, does acknowledge the extra importance of knockout matches but doesn't see any reason why good players should become bad in knockout matches.
"I think knockout games are important," Rohit says. "We do understand that. It's a simple logic to it, knockout games, because you get to play only once and there's only one opportunity to do well in that knockout game. But for us, I think, not just for me but for the players, what they've done in their entire career doesn't define them by just one knockout game. The entire year you work so hard to get where you want to and to do well in whichever format you play. So that one particular game is not going to decide that.
"It's important we do understand the importance of knockout, but at the same time, it's also important to realise and understand what sort of effort you put in the entire year to come to that stage. For us, as players, as a team, we can pride ourselves to be here at this point in time because we saw two of the quality teams which were knocked out [in the Super 12s], and anything can happen in this format.
"It's important to understand that if do well in knockout matches, it gives you that immense confidence. But we do not forget what has happened in the past, what the players have done in the past. There's a lot of effort that goes into putting ourselves and playing for the country and getting those efforts, getting those runs, getting those wickets, so I really don't believe that one bad game in the knockout can truly define what kind of player you are."
Be that as it may, come Thursday, one of these excellent teams will be called chokers and the other clutch. A status that will be up for debate again on Sunday.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo