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ON A sun-baked winter morning last November, an England team officially commenced its tour with a warm-up session at the Brabourne Stadium. Decked in their white-dominated practice gear, Alastair Cook & Co. had gone through their rigours with painstaking solicitude. They were coming off a tough Test year. They’d lost a Test to Bangladesh for the first time ever only a couple of days earlier, being spun out by a teenager. And now a trial by world-class spin awaited them. The edginess in the camp was palpable. It didn’t help either that their captain was under the cosh having hinted at giving up the reins by the end of the series.
The sun was nearing its descent and the shadows lengthening at the CCI by the time Eoin Morgan & Co. walked out for their practice session on Monday. Even at the outset, this England team — even though it contained eight, excluding new-daddy Joe Root, members from the Test squad — looked a lot brighter. And not just because the white-dominated jerseys had given way to the more catchy teal-coloured uniforms. It’s not like they went through their rigours without vigour, but they seemed more like unencumbered spirits while at it.
In one net, Alex Hales was trying his best to clear the archaic roof to the left of the stadium, almost managing to hit balls into the posh buildings behind CCI that line Mumbai’s famous Marine Drive. In the adjoining net, Ben Stokes was redefining the batting textbook, attempting shots around the dial including reverse-sweeps and switch-hits. That is, amidst smashing the white ball into orbit like he has a personal grudge against it, with the floodlights taking effect around CCI and the members getting edgier on the sidelines.
On a roll
England’s ODI team are, after all, coming off one of the most successful years in their history. In 2016, Morgan’s team won 11 and lost only five out of their 17 matches. They’re presently coming off a run where they’ve lost only two in 12 matches. They’re on a roll.
On Monday, the energy in the English camp was palpable. The captain is under a cloud having chosen to opt out of the Bangladesh tour citing security concerns. But unlike Cook, there’s no question over Morgan’s authority over his team, considering the manner in which he’s championed England’s transformation in 50-over cricket.
For, in this period, they’ve revamped themselves from being the priggish laggards who turned fans away from ODIs to now turning heads as the format’s bashful debonairs. And they will be a force to reckon with for Virat Kohli as he begins his official reign as India’s overall captain.
It all seemed so dire and grave, though, on that fateful evening in Adelaide less than two years ago. On March 9, 2015, England’s ODI cricket had officially reached its nadir. They’d been beaten by Bangladesh and knocked out of the World Cup in the first round itself. Or as the BBC website put it, “the Tigers roared, England went out with the faintest of miaows.” They even ran a contest asking readers to describe the shambolic exit in three words. “Antiquated. Lacklustre. Rudderless.” and “Playing 1990’s cricket” stood out.
As Andy Dufresne of Shawshank Redemption would have put it, “It came down to a simple choice really (for England). Get busy living or get busy dying.” England finally woke up from their epoch-long slumber and have since lived on the edge. Along the way, they’ve not just managed to join the rest of the pack but in some ways even overtaken them.
On August 30 last year, they amassed the highest-ever total in ODI history, scoring 444/3 against Pakistan at Trent Bridge. All-rounder Chris Woakes summed up the moment perfectly, and echoed sentiments across the cricket world, when he said, “we do have to pinch ourselves because the improvements have been dramatic from where we were.”
The 444 though wasn’t a one-off. Since the Adelaide debacle, England are the only team in the world to have scored faster than a-run-a-ball overall, their run rate an outstanding 6.24. Australia are second-best having scored at 5.84 an over. England only have the world champions ahead of them when it comes to win-loss ratio in this period.
And it’s no surprise that they possess the most fearful batting line-up in ODI cricket presently. India and Australia might still have more quality in their batting ranks. But in Hales, Jason Roy, Jos Buttler, Stokes and captain Morgan himself, England’s strategy seems more inclined towards kamikaze attacks on the opposition bowling with no respite.
Then there’s always the irrepressible Root to lead the more calculated strikes with the enigmatic Sam Billings capable of singlehandedly turning matches on their head.
So why did England languish in a time warp till two years back? We could probably borrow another Dufresne quote here. For, the English approach to 50-over cricket till that point was nothing short of being ‘obtuse’.
In England, for some reason, it was always believed that the older you were, the better suited you were to deal with the intricacies and inscrutable challenges of ODI cricket. For years, their World Cup teams were amongst the oldest on average in the competition. In fact, the average age of their squad for the 1999 World Cup— the last time it was held in their backyard — was well past 30. We can rest assured that won’t be the case in two years’ time when they play hosts to the World Cup again.
It’s not just been a case of gung-ho cricket either. They’ve clearly played the smartest 50-over cricket in the world in the last 20-odd months, which is indicated by the fact that they’ve scored faster in the middle overs than they have in the first 15 overs. As a result, they’ve been able to cross 300 more often than any other team in the world. Last year they chased down a total of 309 in just 40.1 overs.
That England languished nearly in the dark ages as far as ODI stats are concerned is best summed up by the numbers. Only two of their batsmen have ever crossed 5,000 career runs with Ian Bell leading the way with 5,416 runs at 37.87 in 161 matches. Marcus Trescothick, the former opener, is the only England batsman whose century count is in double-figures at 12. But it only seems a matter of time before Root, for one, puts the record straight. He already has eight centuries in his 78 ODIs and, along with Morgan and Buttler, is racing up that table.
Putting the record straight
Other national records have tumbled too, and the incumbent ones seem more relevant with where 50-over cricket presently stands. Buttler now holds the record for the fastest century by an Englishman, his 52-ball 116 against Sri Lanka last year. Hales finally overtook Robin Smith’s 163 against Australia in 1993, which had stood as England’s highest ODI individual score for over two decades, with a 171 during the 444 match. Roy had come close a few months earlier when he was dismissed for 162.
England also have the leading wicket-taker in ODIs in the period that’s seen their 50-over resurgence. Ironically, it’s a leg-spinner, Adil Rashid who has 48 wickets. Just like he did in the Tests, Rashid will be the visitors’ main weapon with the ball. In David Willey — who came close to winning his team the World T20 final with a terrific spell — and Liam Plunkett, who’ll miss the first warm-up match on Tuesday with an injury, England’s new-ball attack is in good hands too.
The hosts, starting with MS Dhoni and his India A outfit on Tuesday, will soon realise that this new unhinged English lot believes in living vicariously and doesn’t quite die wondering either. That they are here to fight the good fight.