England's World Cup title defence was case study in messing things up

Ill prepared and complacent, England believed they could turn on the 50-over fireworks like flicking a switch… but a succession of errors left them red-faced in terrible Cricket World Cup title defence

  • England won just three of their nine matches in shocking World Cup campaign
  • Jos Buttler’s decision to bowl first in sweltering heat in Mumbai summed it up
  • Rob Key was honest about England’s shortcomings during the tournament 

It was the decision that captured England’s disconnect with reality, the low point of a World Cup that has become an instant case study in how to mess things up.

On the afternoon of October 21, Mumbai was sweltering in heat closer to 40 degrees than 30. 

Leaving the team’s sumptuously air-conditioned Taj Mahal hotel, managing director Rob Key began to sweat. The perspiration would prove both literal and metaphorical.

Ten minutes by cab to the north lay the Wankhede Stadium, where England – six days after their shock defeat by Aghanistan in Delhi – hoped to get their title defence back on track against South Africa, who looked vulnerable after losing to the Netherlands.

Yet when Jos Buttler won the toss at 1.30pm, he chose to bowl, unaccountably exposing his team to the afternoon’s warmth and humidity.

England endured a torrid World Cup campaign as Jos Buttler’s (right) side exited early 

David Willey toils in the heat and humidity of Mumbai in the defeat to South Africa

Jos Buttler’s decision to bowl first in tough conditions led to England suffering a vital defeat

By the end of South Africa’s brutal innings of 399 for seven, Heinrich Klaasen was so exhausted he essentially gave up running. 

Instead, he hit 16 boundaries in a 67-ball 109, after which England – ragged and demoralised – collapsed to 100 for eight.

Mathematically, they were still in contention for the semi-finals. But their aura had gone the way of their common sense. 

Trusting data based more on the 20-over IPL than on 50-over ODIs – of which the Wankhede had hosted only five since the 2011 World Cup final – England ignored the evidence staring them in the face, as well as caking their shirts in sweat.

On Sunday, Key’s assessment of the decision was as revealing as it was honest – and summed up a tournament in which England’s double world champions were ill prepared, off the pace and complacent, believing they could simply turn up and turn it on.

‘I hold myself accountable for a lot of that, really,’ he said. ‘I’ve set up a coaching team that had no local experience.

‘So when you get to somewhere like Mumbai, and you’re worried about dew and all this stuff, and actually someone who knows these conditions really well says ‘by the way, it’s hotter than the sun out there, make sure you have a bat’, you know…

‘But we got so caught up in what was going to happen five or six hours down the line. Yeah, Matthew Mott should have known that, we all should have known that. We make these decisions and then you end up regretting them.’

England’s managing director Rob Key was honest about the team’s shortcomings in India 

Coach Matthew Mott (left) looks set to carry on after Key acknowledged poor preparations

England would not concede the fact until it was too late, but they had been spooked by their opening-night defeat in Ahmedabad against New Zealand, whose batsmen had enjoyed the early-evening dew and brushed aside a target of 283.

This contributed to Buttler’s preference for chasing, despite mounting evidence. By the time he changed tack and batted first against the Netherlands and Pakistan – both of which England won – they had lost nine of their last 10 ODIs batting second.

If stubbornness was one thing, a belief that everything would be alright on the night suggested widespread delusion.

By their own admission, England had neglected the ODI format since Eoin Morgan’s team lifted the World Cup at Lord’s in 2019. Now they arrived in India buoyed by the conviction that they could do it all over again, at the flick of a switch.

‘I made the mistake of thinking that actually it will be alright when we get there,’ said Key. ‘And that’s not been the case. You made the assumption that, without playing lots of 50-over cricket, such a good team will just slip into old habits and away we go.

England’s players walk off after their consolation win over Pakistan on Saturday 

‘In 2019, our batting was miles ahead of everyone else’s. We were more aggressive, and the rest of the world was playing catch up. But we’ve stood still, and actually got more conservative, and everyone else has caught us up.

‘What we needed to do was get out here and understand 50-over cricket better, which we haven’t done. We’ve underestimated what it would be like out here.’

It said plenty that England’s powerplay score of 72 without loss against Pakistan on Saturday was their highest of the tournament. 

And despite constant pleas from the management and senior players to recapture the aggression of old, they could not respond, instead living out the World Cup in the enervating no-man’s land between theory and practice.

It was also revealing that the two players who have now been ditched – Dawid Malan and David Willey – combined successful tournaments with the suspicion that they are outsiders.

Malan was England’s best batsman, Willey their best seamer, at least after Reece Topley broke a finger. Willey’s post-match press conference at Eden Gardens on Saturday was one long howl at the injustice of it all.

David Willey was England’s best seamer but has no future in international cricket

Meanwhile, the news that Jofra Archer suffered more pain in his right elbow during a brief spell with England in Mumbai has heightened the need for incisive new-ball bowlers, of which Willey has been one.

For all Key’s efforts to shoulder some of the blame, it is clear that a combination of Mott and Buttler – who came to resemble rabbits in headlights – was unable to rouse the team.

And while Key agreed that Mott had not helped the players reach their potential, he believed he should be ‘given the opportunity to put things right’ – without offering any corroborating evidence.

Key still has plenty of credit in the bank. England remain T20 world champions, and their Bazball revolution has been the talk of the Test game.

But on the evidence of the past few weeks, England’s belief that Mott and Buttler can repeat last year’s T20 triumph in the USA and the Caribbean next summer risks the same outcome we have witnessed here.

‘Investing in them will give Jos that clarity going forward,’ said Key. ‘I feel this actually should be the making of those two as a partnership. If it isn’t, you move on, but we have to make sure some good comes out of what has been a very poor World Cup.’

On that, at least, we can all agree.

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