Statistically, England are not bad at limited-overs cricket. They were runners-up in the Champions Trophy last year and, in fact, came very close to winning it. They won the World T20 in 2010, and since then they've been ranked the No. 1 ODI team in the world. In terms of results, they’re OK.
But limited-overs cricket has been changing for almost two decades now, and as the game ferociously evolves, England have not only been failing to adapt, but they have been fighting, and continue to fight, the evolution.
With every passing year they fall further behind a rapidly moving curve.
One of the inherent and unavoidable challenges that face English cricket is that their home conditions are perhaps the most unique conditions on the international circuit. There are, of course, finer differences between pitches in Asia, Australasia, South Africa and the Caribbean, but they are united in the dominance of bat over ball.
The same cannot be said for English conditions where greener pitches and cloudier skies favour bowlers. While outside the UK the challenge is accelerated run-scoring; in the UK the challenge is often survival. It is an entirely different ball-game.
English cricket has perennially remained subservient to the conditions of this circumstance, selecting teams and adopting strategies dictated to by the nature of cricket in England.
There are fewer more hollow platitudes than the concept of the "World Cup Cycle" trumpeted by England that sees them promote the idea of planning for the next World Cup only to select teams inappropriate for the conditions of such tournaments in the interim.
Of course, there’s a line between looking to the future and trying to win each match played.
There is no better way to plan than to win, but at the same time, winning in between World Cups is no use if a team simply gets to the World Cup itself only to be beaten consistently in unfamiliar surroundings.
The ECB Black Ops stats unit in Loughborough will no doubt have countless graphs, charts, scales and formulas that suggest a top four of Alastair Cook, Ian Bell, Gary Balance and Joe Root "works." But gut cricketing instinct recoils against such players—players that are classical and technically-proficient, solid and fluid, but far from spectacular and definitely not explosive or frightening.
This is not the direction that the game is heading. This is not how the game is played, how it is being redefined or remoulded. It is an approach of the past, not of the present nor the future. It is understandable and certainly based in logic and most probably statistics and data, but therein perhaps lies the problem.
Statistics can prove just about anything if you look hard enough but in that they can cloud even the most obvious of truths.
Limited-overs cricket has been changing since 1996, and here we are in 2014 discussing why English cricket is fighting such change.
I think that ultimately, beneath the numbers and beneath the condition theories, there is a more foundational truth to England’s timidity in the ODI arena, and that is a more pervasive and, at times, even sanctimonious attitude to change, progression and individuality.
The Kevin Pietersen saga rekindled an ineffable feeling not too dissimilar to fans who also remembered the treatment of David Gower and Ian Botham—two geniuses in their own right who sought to change the game and challenge the establishment. Just as the Indian Premier League, with its liberating global village feel is shunned by English cricket, radicalisation is too.
It’s not that England don’t have the talent to follow the game. It’s that they are finding excuses not to.
Alex Hales scored 167 off 133 balls in a Championship match, while England’s top four scored 133 off 153 deliveries. James Vince is a starlet lighting up county cricket, and Eoin Morgan, Jos Buttler and Ravi Bopara are three supremely talented players who should all be given greater responsibility.
Alastair Cook and Ian Bell, who opened for England on June 3, are not bad ODI players—they are OK. They can score at five an over, but they don’t have a higher gear or a second move. It’s one-dimensional, predictable and certainly not scary.
Gary Ballance and Joe Root—younger players from a different generation—are certainly more suited to the format, but only the other day they were involved in a passage of play that saw England go 130 balls without hitting a boundary.
Tournament cricket is defined by playing aggressive cricket. Those who take the middle-road don’t always struggle, but they never win.
You must be brave, bold and daring. Grab the tournament by the scruff of the neck and seize hold of the occasion. England don’t do that and won’t do that for as long as they continue to play as they do.
England need not worry about the materials at their disposal, but rather the manner with which they are handling them.
English limited-overs cricket needs a moment of emancipation and liberation. There would be no bolder statement to make the new era a truly new era than that.
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