News Analysis

England balancing act leaves them staring into World Cup abyss

Batting depth has been their hallmark but the side beaten by South Africa was neither one thing nor the other

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
England's teamsheet encapsulated just how quickly their plans have been thrown out of the window. Moeen Ali, Sam Curran, Liam Livingstone and Chris Woakes all played in Ahmedabad on the opening night of the tournament; 16 days later, they found themselves relegated to the dugout.
Matthew Mott had rejected the idea of "wholesale changes" in a media briefing in Mumbai on Tuesday, but England made three out of a possible four against South Africa. Ben Stokes, David Willey and Gus Atkinson featured for the first time in the tournament, with Curran, Livingstone and Woakes all left out.
Four players who have collectively embodied one of England's great strengths, their wealth of all-round talent, found themselves running the drinks. In fact, Curran and Livingstone ended up spending the majority of South Africa's innings on the field as substitutes, as England tried to mitigate injuries and illness.
In theory, it meant strengthening the bowling attack - Curran and Woakes had both leaked runs in England's first three games - while allowing England to pick an extra specialist batter: Harry Brook was retained alongside Stokes, who will not bowl a ball at this World Cup due to his chronic knee injury.
But in practice, it meant that England were vulnerable to any of their bowlers going down injured or having an off-day. When Reece Topley hurt a finger in his fourth over, Jos Buttler felt compelled to throw the ball to Joe Root, who had rattled through 6.1 expensive overs by the end of the 23rd.
And it meant that with the bat, England were unusually reliant on their top six, with Willey batting at No. 7 for the first time in four years and Adil Rashid at No. 8 for the first time in five. There was some irony in the fact that it was their ninth-wicket pair of Atkinson and Mark Wood who saved some face with a 70-run partnership.
Mott's explanation was that Stokes' return and the form of Curran and Woakes meant that England had little choice but to alter their balance. "We always knew something had to give and we wanted to do was go with the most aggressive option, which was to try to bowl them out," he said.
"We knew we were a bit light with the bat, but we were prepared to back our top six batters, who are our best six batters. When you lose a few in the Powerplay and you're behind it [the game], it certainly doesn't look like a great decision. But that was the method, and we'll have to rethink that for the next game."
Speaking to Sky, he added: "We'll definitely look back and reflect on that. For a long time, having someone at No. 7 who can really influence a match like a Livingstone or an Ali has been, definitely, the blueprint… but I don't think that was the difference between the two teams today. They thoroughly outplayed us."
That much was true: England's defeat did not owe to selection. Atkinson and Willey took 2 for 60 and 0 for 61 respectively from nine overs each, and were England's most economical seamers; based on their performances in the first three games, Curran and Woakes may have proved even more expensive, and they have hardly contributed with the bat either.
Alternatives were scant. Stokes' highly-anticipated return proved a non-event - he made 5 off 8 balls, walking out with England 23 for 2 in pursuit of 400 - but his inclusion was a necessity, to the extent Mott repeatedly described it as "a forced change". With Brook the only batter to exert himself in defeat against Afghanistan, a shift in formation was unavoidable.
But the balance of the side - or lack thereof - exposed the extent to which England have lost their identity in ODIs. Batting has always been their strength and picking several allrounders liberated their top order to follow their attacking instincts: the team that faced South Africa looked like neither one thing nor the other.
Four years ago, England used 13 players across the 2019 World Cup; four matches into the tournament, they have already used all 15 players in their initial squad. Consistency of selection was once a hallmark of their white-ball set-up, but England have determined that it will be difficult to achieve in India due to the diversity of conditions.
"Our message has been really clear: we will go from place to place, and pick the best team we think," Mott said. "I don't shy away from the fact that the balance of that team was a little bit out today… That's what happens when you lose: every decision is questioned. When you win, you can gloss over it a bit, but we paid heavily for it today."
Mott also explained that England went with a fourth seamer, rather than a spin-bowling allrounder, because they believed South Africa would be vulnerable against pace. "Looking at our match-ups with South Africa, we wanted to go a little bit pace-heavy," he said. "We thought that was our best way of taking wickets throughout the innings."
Instead, England's seamers conceded 8.42 runs per over collectively, while their spinners went at 6.74 an over. It was further evidence of the extent to which they misread conditions, added to their decision to bowl first in the afternoon sun, which Mott said was "pretty unanimous".
Mott also admitted his frustrations that England play so little ODI cricket: they played 42 ODIs between the 2019-23 World Cups, compared to 88 in the 2015-19 cycle, and almost none with a full-strength side available. "I would love us to play a little bit more cricket, if I'm being honest," he said.
"When you're looking at trying to get your combinations and confidence, certainly, the more you can play together - and win and lose going into series - is going to help… we knew coming into this tournament we were guessing a little bit; we knew that with selections, in terms of being able to compare different players."
But there is nothing that Mott can do about perceived systemic issues in the next three weeks. Instead, he must convince his players that, as he told the press, "they're still bloody good" - good enough to win their next five group-stage games, starting on Thursday against Sri Lanka in Bengaluru.
"I still think we picked our best 15, and I still think we can win this tournament," Mott insisted. "But it needs to turn around pretty quickly."

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98