Whisper it, but the stage is set for England’s biggest World Cup letdown of the lot. If you thought 1996, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015 weren’t great, try stumbling in front of your home crowd because the favourites tag around your neck is starting to resemble a millstone.
England’s fate remains in their own hands, even after this worryingly timid defeat by Australia. But it is about the best that can be said right now.
If they fail to beat India on Sunday, then New Zealand the following Wednesday – and both sides are undefeated – 2019 could take its place in the crowded pantheon of English World Cup debacles.
The stage is set for England’s biggest World Cup letdown of the lot after their loss to Australia
Eoin Morgan’s team have now played seven matches and lost three, which is not the form of semi-finalists, let alone champions. And it is not the form of a side who, between the last World Cup and this, have obliterated almost everything in their path, rising to the top of the rankings and redefining the essence of one-day batting.
Just look at the three nations who have beaten them here – Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Australia. England recently beat the Pakistanis 4-0. Before Christmas they won 3-1 in Sri Lanka. Last summer they thrashed Australia 5-0, taking their sequence against them to 10 victories out of 11.
Even the most pessimistic English fan, anaesthetised by fiascos past, might not have backed them to lose all three. And yet, as sure as ‘bowled 0’ follows ‘James Vince’, that is precisely what has happened.
Deprived of the safety valve of the multi-match bilateral series, when a meltdown today can be put right by a pick-me-up tomorrow, England are playing as if they have been spooked by the one-off demands of tournament cricket. Frankly, they are in danger of choking.
The defeat by Pakistan stemmed from scrappy fielding, which often provides an insight into a team’s state of mind. More specifically, it stemmed from Jason Roy’s dropped catch to reprieve Mohammad Hafeez. That cost them 70 in runs alone; in psychological terms it was unquantifiable.
Eoin Morgan’s men have lost three of their seven matches vs Australia, Sri Lanka and Pakistan
Jofra Archer can’t hide his frustration during yet another England loss on Tuesday at Lord’s
Wins over South Africa, Bangladesh, West Indies and Afghanistan were the least England should have expected. But then came Sri Lanka at Headingley last Friday, when they reacted to a slow pitch exactly as they did during the 2017 Champions Trophy semi-final against Pakistan in Cardiff — with a suspicion bordering on paranoia.
Chasing 233 against one of the weakest teams in the competition, they displayed a collective lack of intent, until it was too late and Ben Stokes had no option but to hit out. A frustrated Jos Buttler admitted they had been too passive. Not since January 2014 had they failed to chase so low a total.
It seemed only reasonable to ask whether England were succumbing to the pressure, but they dismissed the defeats as blips. The idea that they might be allowing their status as favourites to get inside their heads was treated with bemusement.
‘I don’t think nerves played a part at all in the defeats against Pakistan and Sri Lanka,’ said Morgan before the Australia game. ‘We’ve shown throughout the World Cup we can perform under pressure.’
He reiterated the message after it too.
Jason Roy’s dropped catch against Pakistan has proved crucial to England’s worrying form
In a sense, the captain has no choice: to admit to frailty is to lose games of cricket before they start. But with the best will in the world, England are deluding themselves — and it’s not as if they haven’t been here before.
In 2013, they needed 20 off 16 balls with six wickets in hand to beat India in the Champions Trophy final at Edgbaston, only to collapse horribly.
And in 2016, they had one hand on the World T20, only for Carlos Brathwaite to hit four sixes in the last over.
Now, watched by a packed Lord’s, they found a novel way of losing, failing to attack the stumps with the new ball on a seaming pitch under cloudy skies. It was an elementary error, especially against a side as reliant on their opening batsmen as Australia are on Aaron Finch and David Warner.
Australia’s new-ball attack didn’t make the same mistake as England did on Tuesday in London
England fought back against a suspect middle order, but not before the score had reached 173 for one. The horse had long bolted.
Australia’s new-ball attack made no such mistake. Jason Behrendorff swung his second delivery through the non-existent defence of Vince and Mitchell Starc pinned Joe Root. Morgan, Jonny Bairstow and Buttler — three who have made a habit of clearing the rope — were then caught on the boundary. Despite Stokes’s 89, the rest had no chance.
There is no denying the thrills England have provided over the past four years. They will always have 444 for three against Pakistan, and 481 for six against Australia.
But, with the exception of Stokes, their cricket has grown sloppy. And they are running out of time to fix it.