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Match Analysis

England's fantasy given dose of reality

More runs for Eoin Morgan and a half-century for Ben Stokes provided further good news for England's liberated one-day side, but this time the plans came unstuck at a crucial stage

Ben Stokes opened his shoulders early, England v New Zealand, 3rd ODI, Ageas Bowl, June 14, 2015

Ben Stokes provided another tick in England's box with a free-wheeling half-century, but did not see out the innings  •  PA Photos

"Fantasy is an exercise bicycle for the mind," wrote the late author Terry Pratchett about the genre in which he made his name. "It might not take you anywhere but it tones up the muscles that can." At the moment, England are attempting to play a bit of fantasy cricket. It didn't take them very far on this occasion but it might just end up getting them into shape.
In the sylvan setting of West End, not far from Hambledon, supposedly the cradle of the game, England's future cricket zig-zagged a little further down the path of self-discovery. Eoin Morgan and Ben Stokes led the way in a fizzing-but-flawed display with the bat, only for the bad old days to return in the shape of a late collapse and a welter of dropped catches that ultimately handed New Zealand victory.
Talk has been of learning lessons during this series and England will know they have to study hard. None of the batsmen to pass 50 - Morgan, Stokes and Joe Root - went on to the hundred required, while in striving to go higher England ended up falling short of a more competitive total.
In response, Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor carved out centuries that defined the course of the match. Williamson's hundred, from 88 balls, still came at a lick that would once have been deemed nigh-on reckless, particularly in these parts - two years ago, when Martin Guptill made 189 on this ground, he reached three figures from his 111th delivery - yet it was characterised by a level of savvy missing during the England innings.
Still, England have set out their stall and are prepared to try and aggressively flog the product. Late wickets narrowed the gap between the sides but the comfort with which Williamson and Taylor added 206 in 32.2 overs for the third wicket would have left Morgan undeterred about his strategy, even if the execution was wanting.
Confirmation of Morgan's appointment as limited-overs captain - he took over from Stuart Broad in T20 as well - was filed under "any other business" when Andrew Strauss took charge as director of England cricket in May. Absolving Morgan of any blame for the embarrassment of the World Cup was in part recognition that his power was circumscribed by having taken charge just weeks before the start of the tournament, following the sacking of Alastair Cook.
This new-look side, selected with Morgan's involvement, has been given the most attacking remit in England's limited-overs history. That much is clear from their approach with the bat but Morgan made the thinking explicit in an interview for the official series programme.
"If there's one thing we have learned from the World Cup, it's that we need to play positive cricket in order to be competitive in all conditions," Morgan said, "I'll be asking my teams to take the game forward and not be safe in any way. That sort of message would excite anyone."
There was certainly no sense of them playing it safe as England were dismissed with 28 deliveries left unbowled. At Edgbaston, England had gone from 202 for 6 to 408 for 9 as they resolutely refused to take their foot off the gas, with Jos Buttler warning afterwards that things would not always go so well - particularly with a side findings its way. Here was the proof.
Morgan's assertiveness has extended to moving up the order to No. 4, a berth he has occupied infrequently during the previous six years of his England career. This innings, which actually demanded a more cautious approach early on after two wickets fell in conditions that could be described as "fresh", was his third consecutive half-century and pushed his average as captain back towards 50 (it is 47.16 from 20 innings).
His dismissal, attempting to hit across the line against a non-turning Williamson offbreak, would in previous times have invited criticism for failing to go in. Instead, with England well placed on 194 from 33 overs, it seemed merely to demand that someone else take up the standard and continue the cavalry charge.
While Morgan's style is that of the ice-cold assassin, Stokes is a saucepan permanently on the boil. He hits with such power that he could be serviceably plugged into the National Grid and, after the tentative failures of 2014 that ultimately cost him a place in England's World Cup squad, he appears ready for a marauding role with the bat at No. 5. This, following two Catherine Wheel innings during the Lord's Test, was only Stokes' second one-day fifty, at the 22nd attempt.
When England had cruised to a score of 267 for 5 after 40 overs, they had looked well set for another jumbo total. Stokes was striking the ball majestically down the ground while Sam Billings scooped like a kid in a gelateria but both fell in quick succession as England galloped ahead of themselves. It was still enough for England to make three successive scores of above 300 for the first time in ODIs but, on another good pitch, the total left an inexperienced bowling attack exposed.
Should England have ensured they batted out their overs? It is not a question that is likely to be asked in the dressing room, at least not at this stage. As a counter example, when England took on Sri Lanka at the World Cup, they finished on 309 for 6 only for their opponents to knock off the runs one wicket down with 16 balls to spare. This England have decided that it's okay to be in the gutter as long as they are reaching for the stars.

Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick