Monday, 23 January 2017

A reality check

Monday, 23 January 2017
The ODI series against India came as a challenge for a much-improved England side who had made leaps and bounds over the previous two years, reaching new heights over the English summer as well as coming through a hard-fought series against Bangladesh. It promised to be a tough task, but hopes were high for a team much hyped by many corners. What came next was something of a reality check.

Not that it was all bad, of course. Make consecutive scores of 350, 366, and 321 in a three match series and you would probably expect to come away with a series win. The problem was that India were still able to outscore them on two of those occasions, only just falling short in the final ODI. A series that saw many strong performances with the bat, saw few with the ball. It's not a time for drastic action, but in some areas a bit of a rethink could be needed.

The most obvious area of attention is, of course, their performance with the ball. It's a horrible time to be a bowler in ODI cricket right now with run rates going through the roof and records are falling all around, and England's bowlers certainly struggled. Often they were able to get the early breakthroughs - having India facing positions of 63/4, 25/3, and 37/2 across the course of the series - but from there India were able to recover with batsmen like Kohli, Yuvraj, Dhoni, and Jadhav all playing a big role. In the opening two games, these four shared the big match-winning partnerships, the kind that make all the difference in this format of the game. Kohli and Jadhav's 200 run partnership took India from 63/4 to a position of strength at 263/5; Yuvraj and Dhoni's 256 gave them a platform to go all out in attack in the last seven overs. England batted well, no doubt, but never had that truly colossal partnership that makes all the difference. India's bowlers took more wickets in the middle overs. It was also worth noting in the individual century counts, where India had four to England's one.

It is often said that wickets are key in slowing down the run rate in this format, and for the most part, it's true. And that was one of the big problems for England. The bowlers struggled to take wickets in the middle overs, and India could recover before imposing themselves again towards the very end of the innings. Over the last twelve months, Adil Rashid has been a key man in this respect, in 2016 England's leading wicket taker, most economic, and with one of the best strike rates. But Rashid's form is so often in flux, and in this series he played just the one game - five overs, fifty runs. It was difficult for Morgan to have confidence in his man after that. Moeen Ali became England's sole spinner, and was their most economic bowler in the series, but was left wicketless from the three games.

Was it that the bowlers were often failing to consistently hit a line or length, or was it that they lacked that so-called 'x factor', an extra quality to take wickets in the middle overs? An attack relying primarily on swing and seam that can generally do a better job in home conditions looked to be needing that different option - like Mark Wood for instance if fit, or Steven Finn if his confidence returns. It feels somewhat premature to abandon Stuart Broad in this format, too.

In fairness, India's bowlers were far from remarkable either. Ravindra Jadeja was the only bowler on either side with a series economy rate under 6 runs per over, going at 5.23. Figures of 1/50 and 1/45 in the first two games come away as simply brilliant, and were arguably a key difference between the sides. When England had their best day with the ball - when the short ball was used to greater effect, more wickets fell in the middle of the innings, and Stokes and Woakes tied India down at the death - they won the game. Though the series brought three high scoring and thrillingly tense games, part of me was still longing for a more even contest between bat and ball. The basic premise of cricket is obviously 'score more runs than the other team', but in a way that premise was taken to the extreme.

It's a big year for England in ODI cricket, with the format taking centre stage until July and a home Champions Trophy beginning in June. Even if this series provided something of a reality check after what was generally a high flying 2016, England have to be considered among the favourites to win. Home advantage will be a big deal, and for all the bowlers' struggles they should at least go better in their more naturally suited conditions. This tour showed though, that their journey is not complete; they're not world beaters just yet.

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