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Bursting of England's bubble shows how long the road to 2023 will be

First home ODI series defeat since 2015 reveals areas for improvement in World Cup cycle

George Dobell
George Dobell
Joe Root claimed quick wickets to put England in command  •  Getty Images

Joe Root claimed quick wickets to put England in command  •  Getty Images

If part of the art of success in limited-overs cricket is peaking at the right time, England haven't timed their dip in results too badly.
There's never a good time to lose to Australia, of course. Particularly given that the result was 5-0 to England the last time they visited. But this is still the early stages of the new four-year cycle towards the next World Cup. If ever there was a time to experiment and learn, it is now. Come the start of that tournament, in October 2023, the details of this series - fascinating though they are - will not be most people's first frame of reference.
On that basis alone, it may well prove unwise to read too much into this defeat. This is the first bilateral ODI series England have lost since January 2017 in India, after all. The first they have lost in England since 2015, when Australia were, again, the victors. Their long-term record remains excellent. And, in the end, they lost this match by a whisker to what Eoin Morgan admitted, quite accurately, looked "a better side".
In many ways, England will take a lot of heart from this series. For if there's one quality that shone out it was their resilience. In all three of these ODIs - and in the first T20I against the same opposition - there were moments when it appeared as if they were going to be on the wrong end of a drubbing. To have won two of those matches and gone close in the two others demonstrates a certain amount of self-confidence and fight.
"The positive is we can win when we don't play our best games," Morgan said afterwards. "We've seen the guys show belief and fight. Australia have out-played us but sometimes when you do that [win easily] you take things for granted. But these contests have been so tight we've learned a huge amount."
It's worth remembering, too, what Morgan said ahead of the series. He said he welcomed the prospect of playing on lower, slower surfaces which provided assistance to spin as they considered both an area of weakness and a likely scenario ahead of the tournament in India.
In that case, he will have learned plenty. And in some respects, it is that England have a long way to go before they can be considered favourites to retain their title. For, if they're really honest, they will accept they were flattered a bit by the margin of defeat in the first game, escaped from jail in the second and saw a couple of familiar failings come back to haunt them in the third.
"We've learned quite a lot about the group playing on slower wickets," Morgan continued. "Having an opportunity to play on them for three games in a row is a rare one for us. It hasn't gone our way, but certainly we have addressed an area of our game that is our weakest. We now have time to take it and work on it."
The thing they must improve most, in all formats, is their fielding. Whether in T20Is, Tests or ODIs, too many chances are going down to sustain serious hopes of winning the biggest tournaments. Morgan suggested his side missed the intensity created by a live audience, which is, no doubt, a factor. But it was telling that Australia seemed to manage far better.
Two chances went down in this game. The first, Jofra Archer seeing a drive from Marcus Stoinis burst through his hands at mid-off, did not prove costly. But the second, Jos Buttler failing to cling on to a sharp but, by these standards, pretty much regulation chance offered by Glenn Maxwell off Adil Rashid when he had 44, was arguably the turning point of the game.
The England management maintain they are working hard on the team's fielding and no doubt that's the case. But whatever they're doing isn't working. It's an area that requires a rethink.
Might that include Buttler behind the stumps? Probably not. He's clearly an outstanding batsman in this format - despite a series average of 4.00 - and has performed decently with the gloves in the white-ball game. You only have to think back World Cup final to know that.
But he is not convincing standing up to the spinners. Not in any format. And with the World Cup set to be played in India, it is an area that will require attention.
There may be a vacancy in the spin-bowling department, too. The decision to leave out Moeen Ali on these surfaces was revealing. In normal circumstances, you might have thought England would even have considered playing a third spinner on such pitches but, with confidence in Moeen waning, they elected to pick only Rashid.
It was understandable, too. Since the start of July 2018, Moeen is averaging 16.20 with the bat in 27 ODIs and has taken just 13 wickets at a cost of 86 apiece. His economy rate in that period - 5.75 - isn't too bad but, by comparison, Adil Rashid's is 5.71 (and his average 32.85) in the same period, Nathan Lyon's is 5.01, while Mitchell Santner and Ravi Jadeja both concede 4.88 an over. Yes, Joe Root deputised nicely at Emirates Old Trafford. But at a World Cup in India, England may want to consider him a third spinner at best.
Liam Plunkett has been missed, too. He would, if fit, have been awkward to face on these surfaces, in particular, and at this stage England look no closer to replacing his middle over wickets. It wasn't necessarily wrong to move on from him - he is 35 now and unlikely to remain a viable selection by the time this World Cup cycle comes to a conclusion - but it was a reminder of how much he offered and the need to replace him.
In general, this series was probably a useful wake-up call. England do not have a great recent record of resetting after achieving their targets. Consider the fate of the Test side which, having reached No. 1 in the rankings in 2011, was defeated by Pakistan, South Africa (at home), Australia and Sri Lanka (at home) over the next few years.
Equally, when they travelled to Australia in 2006-07, they remained wedded to the team who had claimed the historic Ashes victory in 2005. Instead of refreshing it with younger player, they relied upon a team that was, in several cases, well past its best. So, coming up against a strong, motivated Australia team here may have been just the reminder of the levels required to maintain success at this level. Defeat will sting.
There's a bigger issue here, of course. The fact that we were able to see a result at all - the fact we've been treated to some terrifically entertaining cricket over these last two-and-a-half months - must be considered a great success. Bearing in mind the position we were in a few months ago, the achieving of playing the entire men's international schedule is remarkable. It will help keep the professional game's head just above the water.
There are many to credit for this achievement with Steve Elworthy, the man who also ran the World Cup, a primary candidate. But England also owe plenty to West Indies, Pakistan, Ireland and Australia who have, in some cases, sent teams from regions where Covid-19 appeared to be less of a threat in order to help the ECB survive. This spirit must be remembered when future decisions about the game's global finances are made.
The coming weeks will see debates about the need to cut the pay of England's top players. And, in the circumstances, it's probably only right they share the pain. But it must also be remembered that some of them have spent 90 days, with very brief breaks here and there, in a hugely limiting bio-bubble.
They decided long ago not to make any public complaint about this but to have been separated from their families, to have been unable to leave the ground, to have been stuck in the increasingly claustrophobic environment is some way more demanding that they have let on. Whatever the result of this ODI series, they - and all the other teams who visited this summer - deserve a lot of credit for that.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo