Burns Eye View

England World Cup Hopes on Fire

As England’s footballers prepare for a final group match v Belgium this week to determine the winner of Group G in the FIFA World Cup in Russia, Eoin Morgan’s England ODI team are building towards a first-ever success in the ICC Cricket World Cup in England next year too. What an achievement it would be if Morgan’s men can match Bobby Moore’s heroes of 1966 with a host-nation victory.

Mike Brearley’s England lost in the 1979 World Cup Final to West Indies at Lord’s, and Will Carling’s England lost in the 1991 Rugby World Cup to Nick Farr-Jones’s Australians. Can Morgan inspire his men to break England’s duck and become the first England cricket team to win a World Cup Final after previous near-misses by Brearley and overseas Final defeats under Mike Gatting (1987 India) and Graham Gooch (MCG, Australia 1992)? Why not?

The current team is playing some incredible cricket in the lead-up to next year’s cricket World Cup. The recent 5-0 hammering of Australia in England and also the series win in Australia last winter suggest that Morgan’s England have both the firepower and the ruthlessness to take on the world’s best with genuine confidence.

So what has been behind the transformation of England’s ODI team since the limp, embarrassing set of defeats and the subsequent early exit from the 2015 World Cup under Morgan’s captaincy alongside former Head Coach Peter Moores?

Peter Moores remains a fine coach, and possibly the most unfortunate person in terms of timing of when he was appointed as England Coach. I think he was unlucky in having to deal with the muddle that saw Kevin Pietersen excluded as a player, and then the strategic decision to unite the captaincy with the test team under the leadership of Alastair Cook. With Cook installed as ODI captain, when he was clearly not suited to be an opening batsman in modern 50 over cricket, England was out-of-step with the way modern cricket was evolving. Then, to remove him on the eve of departure to the tournament revealed a level of confusion amongst the selection panel – something that has happened too often with England teams in advance of big tournaments. This must change, forever. No more panic-led decisions from leading administrators please!

Since Moores was removed, and Eoin Morgan given increased responsibility to shape the England team in his own image, the results have been phenomenal. And, the impact that Trevor Bayliss has made as England’s ODI Coach since being appointed alongside Paul Farbrace has been remarkable too.

The transformational impact that ‘no fear cricket’ (as the England team like to describe their performance process) has had on results has been beyond the imagination of even the most fervent of England’s brilliant supporters. Put simply, the coaching duo, along with Captain Morgan, have created an environment which has ‘freed up’ the attacking nature of the batsmen, and given players the licence to play with full expression.

The coaching/captaincy/leadership legend that is John Inverarity once shared with a group of elite sport coaches at a leadership workshop hosted by London County Mentoring that the best coaches co-create an environment which enables every player on their list to “play their best sport (cricket), in their own particular way.” The sentence may seem simple, but the wisdom behind the second part of the sentence is profound.

Allowing players to play ‘in their own particular way’ requires the leadership team to celebrate uniqueness of each human being, both in their style of play, and in the expression of their personality in and around the team environment on and off the field of play. Too many previous England (and other national teams) squads seemed to have a culture which required people to ‘fit in’ with the way determined by the leadership/the senior administrators/the coaching staff, as opposed to enabling the individual to represent themselves in a more authentic way when representing their national team.

Coaches who ‘straight-jacket’ players rarely, if ever, extract top creative performance from those in their group. Such an approach tends to look good on paper, or when the ‘team culture’ gets displayed on a power-point presentation by the coach (often used to impress the most senior administrators!) but it is unlikely to translate to the players because it is too mechanical, and limiting for the most creative and competitive sportspeople to ‘own their space’ when selected to perform. The tendency is for players to feel restricted and thus experience an ever-present threat that should they not behave (and play according to ‘the book’) as required then they will be ‘on notice’, and likely to be removed from the team should they not perform in the manner determined by the coaching staff.

Fundamentally, players must ‘own their performance’. Top coaches empower players to do so. Insecure coaches, with a tendency to want to control people, tend to micro-manage performance and thus limit creativity through the restrictions players feel in such an environment.

However, what must also be said, is that winning teams need top players too. And in this England team, Eoin Morgan can call upon some of the game’s most exciting players in the world. Jos Buttler is a remarkable talent. His skill level is phenomenal, and his temperament is outstanding for international sport – he seems so balanced from an emotional perspective, and remains humble whatever his level of accomplishment in his professional performance. Jonny Bairstow is a world-class cricketer, who justifiably bridled at his exclusion from the ODI team previously, and has done all he can to cement a place in the starting XI with consistent top performance at the top of the order. He is more than a game-changer, he is a match-winner and able to sustain performance throughout a series – the hallmark of a world-class performer.

Alex Hales has phenomenal ability to strike a cricket ball. His mental approach has always allowed him to dominate the ball and the bowler from a young age, and now, he is adding a level of cricket intelligence to his game that suggests he could become one of the biggest names in world cricket should he be a top performer in next year’s World Cup competition.

Jason Roy has seemingly matured from being just a clean ‘ball-striker’ to a batsman who has become more judicious in his strokeplay. On interview, the Durban-born Surrey man appears to be revealing a more mature person too with informed comments about the team’s performance and an attitude which represents him ‘serving the team’ in a better way than before. With this attitude present in a team, the collective performance becomes more effective over time.

And, credit where credit is due, Captain Morgan has stamped his authority on this group, and has also played some top-class innings, whether they be short cameos or more lengthy knocks, to highlight his experience and versatility as well as his creativity in the middle order.

With Ben stokes to come back into the team, and add his firepower to the middle overs, plus his bowling skill and highly-competitive attitude, England’s top order is looking very powerful against most opposition especially when presented with a good quality, true surface for batting.

As I see it, the challenge for England will be greater when faced with top-class bowling, and on surfaces which require batsmen to play with more ‘nous’ other than the instinctive ‘see ball, hit ball’ mindset which most players seem very comfortable with. The loss against Pakistan in the last major tournament they played in during the ICC Champions Trophy semi-final in Cardiff suggested an inability to assess the conditions and adapt their play to achieve a working, defendable total. The best players can adapt their play to ensure they come out on top against all bowlers, in a variety of pitch/weather conditions, and in a range of match situations. Can England’s top order do this? I remain unconvinced. But, I hope I am wrong.

Knockout cricket is different to playing in a series of ODI’s. Temperament as well as skill is tested when everything is on the line in one match. Will England’s spin-focused attack of Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid be able to perform consistently well in the high-pressure moments of a World Cup too?

The biggest challenge England has in advance of the World Cup is to develop a penetrative bowling attack that can defend low(ish) totals should the batting unit under-perform. They also need to develop deep inner confidence in both themselves as individuals and also in the team itself . The team’s bowling unit must have the ability to dismiss the opposition’s best batsmen with relative ease, if there is to be a genuine confidence that remains present throughout a tournament. The best opposition must fear England, and if they do, they may find themselves under-performing as a consequence of emergent pre-match fear of England’s threat to any team’s possible supremacy.

In my view, top-class bowling makes the difference in one-day cricket. Dismiss the best players, and no team can ‘hurt’ you badly. Let them ‘get away’ and they will cause havoc.

The best teams down the years in World Cups have enjoyed the luxury of quality combinations of top-class bowlers such as Andy Roberts/Joel Garner/Michael Holding/Malcolm Marshall; Imran Khan/Wasim Akram/Waqar Younis; Glenn McGrath/Shane Warne/Brett Lee, and the present holders had the luxury of quality fast bowlers with the likes of the Mitchell(s) Johnson and Starc who were able to dismiss the dominant New Zealand captain Brendan McCullum in the first over of the most recent World Cup Final before he had scored.

Going forward into the ICC World Cup 2019, England’s challenge (as I see it) is pre-dominantly in the bowling department. Can the players available improve sufficiently during the next year and offer both disciplined control, and penetration – especially with the new ball?

England will need their seam bowlers to be at their peak, and even then, it may not be enough against some of the world’s best batsmen at the World Cup. Can Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes, Liam Plunkett and co. improve sufficiently as bowlers in the next 12 months? I think so – and I hope so.

If they can’t, maybe Stuart Broad will be re-considered – especially if he continues to show his ‘edge’ in one-day cricket for a high-performing Nottinghamshire team and in test cricket for England?

Or, perhaps a newcomer may emerge from the pack of promising young bowlers? The likes of the Curran brothers of Surrey and the Overton twins from Devon. Could it be Reece Topley? Or, possibly the Warwickshire paceman Olly Stone?

Or, indeed, how about this man as a possible wildcard pick – Matt Coles?

The burly Coles, once of Kent, now of Essex, has the chance this summer to impress the selectors, gain a winter touring opportunity and edge his way into the squad. Once there, his explosive style of batting and bowling could change a match (or two) and when captain and coach have such a player at their disposal, they are reluctant to ever leave them out, especially against tough opposition when a combination of flair and controlled aggression on the day can defeat even the best. Discipline has been lacking in Coles' cricket (and life) previously, but his raw talent is (in my humble opinion ) right up there with the likes of Ben Stokes and Glenn Maxwell. Could Coles emerge from ‘nowhere’ and become the equivalent of England’s Sir Geoff Hurst in the 1966 Finals? If you remember Sir Geoff wasn’t anywhere near the team in advance of the Quarter-Final v Argentina, but ended up playing in place of the injured world-class striker Jimmy Greaves. He then kept his place for the semi-final and then scored a legendary hat-trick in the Final to become a national hero forever.

So, as England’s cricketers make a record ODI score of 481, and Harry Kane nets a hat-trick to help England’s footballers achieve a record score-line of 6-1 at the FIFA World Cup, the omens are good. And, if Eddie Jones can continue to inspire the England Rugby boys to repeat their success v South Africa on Saturday when they won 23-10, then our country may have a team of potential World Cup winners across all three sports presently.

I wait with bated breath...

Neil Burns


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