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India seize the attitude of champions as England's focus on learning goes awry

Mitigating circumstances aplenty for England, but formulaic nature of defeat is a concern

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Ben Stokes reacts as KL Rahul and Krunal Pandya steal a run  •  Getty Images

Ben Stokes reacts as KL Rahul and Krunal Pandya steal a run  •  Getty Images

The strut of champions is an indefinable attribute for a sporting team. You can project it without actually having a trophy to back up your confidence, as Eoin Morgan's men managed to such convincing effect in the months leading up to the 2019 World Cup. And you can lose it just as quickly, even while the big prize is still glinting in your cabinet, as Liverpool for example have been demonstrating in this season's Premier League.
So, what should we read into the post-match musings of Morgan and Virat Kohli in Pune, as the captains of England and India put very different spins on their first ODI encounter of the new World Cup cycle?
Morgan, in keeping with his very procedural take on England's white-ball evolution, insisted he was happy once again to write off a pretty thumping defeat as a "learning" experience - even if he did have to rely unusually heavily on management buzzwords at the post-match presentation, as he called on his players to "upskill", "execute better" and "push the envelope", among other less-than-rousing exhortations.
Kohli, by contrast, was not mincing his words, or his excitement, at getting one over the World Champs in such a surging fashion.
"One of our sweetest victories in recent past … I am a really proud man right now," he gushed, with particular reference to his latest debutants, Krunal Pandya and Prasidh Krishna, who emulated the efforts of Ishan Kishan, Suryakumar Yadav and Axar Patel, among others this season, by finding their feet on the big stage at the very first time of asking.
Perhaps, like Scotland's victory at Wembley in 1967, it was a bit too convenient for Kohli to over-state such a performance at precisely the wrong moment in a World Cup cycle. But then again, England as a team and a fan-base lapped up the thrill of watching Morgan's men go toe to toe with Australia and New Zealand in the summer that followed the 2015 World Cup. You might quibble at the timing but never at the intent, and besides, that projection of attitude didn't exactly go to waste in the long run.
Either way, the excitement, and the energy, was as palpable in India's moment of victory as it has been absent in England's somewhat formulaic demises in their past three games - with three failed run-chases across two formats in Ahmedabad and Pune, ostensibly their favourite form of slam-dunking a white-ball contest.
And yes, there are mitigating circumstances (entire bio-bubbles full of them, in fact) as well as some live and kicking evidence of the team's enduring class and threat - most obviously in another sensational opening partnership from Jonny Bairstow and Jason Roy, an alliance that has now racked up more than 2500 runs in 42 innings, at an average in excess of 60 and a run-rate of more than seven an over.
But, once that platform had been set, there's no escaping the fact that England's performance was defined by the follow-up that they lacked - most notably, the absence of Joe Root at No.3, who would have been able to stroll out to the middle at 135 for 1 in the 15th over, and tiptoe his way to a run-a-ball 30 before anyone had noticed he'd arrived.
Instead, there was a short-lived appearance from Ben Stokes in his stead - an experiment that surely had more to do with his lack of traction during the T20I series than any suggestion that this will be his long-term berth in the 50-over format - and a pair of failed auditions for finishing roles from the returning Moeen Ali and the luckless Sam Billings, whose jarred collarbone had distressing echoes of his shoulder dislocation in the final months before the last World Cup.
At least they got time in the middle, which is one of the most problematic aspects when it comes to stress-testing middle-order options in the 20-over format. And at least the absence of Jofra Archer at the death ensured that Tom Curran - and, to a less destabilising extent, Mark Wood - were exposed to the realities of death-bowling against India's IPL-trained lower-order.
But Curran, perhaps more than anyone in this England squad, is a player who leans on a mental projection of confidence as much as the skills that he can bring to an exacting role. He's had a bruising time of it in recent months - at the IPL as much as with England - and right now, with his faith in his methods eroded, he's living proof that the strongest teams are only as good as their weakest links.
England are very capable of fighting back in this series, of course. But the manner of Tuesday's defeat was markedly different from the round-for-round haymaking that the two teams indulged in four years ago, when England lost the ODIs 2-1 but not before they had posted scores of 350 for 7, 366 for 8 and 321 for 8 in consecutive innings - each one of them higher than the 318 they were set for victory here.
And their deliberate retreat from the psychological high ground brings with it dangers of a different kind. Winning is a habit, as England discovered on their march to the summit in 2015-19, and confidence begets confidence along the way. Losing for the sake of learning, on the other hand, tends to become known simply as losing if you get too used to the feeling.
"We actually don't guard the No.1 status at all," Morgan said. "Everything is built towards planning on being competitive at a World Cup and trying to improve our skills over that period of time.
"The competitive nature in which we operate isn't always about learning and making mistakes," he added. "Sometimes people take how much quality you have to produce in an international game for granted. You can't just have a good plan and win a game, or you can't just learn along the way and lose a game. It has to work simultaneously."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @miller_cricket