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England approaches moment of reckoning at Cricket World Cup

May 24, 2019
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England's Jos Buttler, celebrates scoring a century with England's Eoin Morgan, right, during the second One Day International cricket match between England and Pakistan at The Ageas Bowl in Southampton, England Saturday, May 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

So, this is it for England.

Four years of intense and methodical planning, putting the often-ignored format of white-ball cricket front and center in the domestic game, leads to a Cricket World Cup on English soil in a summer that will culminate in a home Ashes series.

For English cricket, it doesn’t get much bigger than this. A chance, in a year devoid of an Olympics or a major soccer tournament, for the country’s cricket team to dominate the nation’s consciousness.

How exciting, then, that England has quite comfortably its best-ever one-day international team to fit the occasion.

England is the top-ranked ODI lineup in the world and the favorite heading into the World Cup as it aims to end a 44-year wait for a first global trophy in the 50-over game.

Playing in home conditions — with the swing, sideways movement and overcast skies that are invariably features — used to be the thing England teams clung to going into an ODI series or tournaments on home turf.

There’s so much more now to this England squad, which has benefited from no longer being an afterthought in a country where test cricket has long been king.

In response to a humiliating group-stage exit at the 2015 Cricket World Cup , the England and Wales Cricket Board channeled its focus on the one-day format. A new director of cricket, Andrew Strauss, was hired with the remit of separating the test and limited-overs teams and improving England’s ODI fortunes; Trevor Bayliss, a coach with a proven record in the white-ball format, was appointed; and an aggressive, positive, risk-taking mindset was instilled.

Just look at the results.

Since the 2015 World Cup, England has posted 15 of its 17 highest ODI totals, has lost just three of its 19 multi-game ODI series, and run up the two highest scores in ODI history — 481-6 against Australia in Nottingham in June 2018, and 444-3 against Pakistan on the same Trent Bridge track in August 2016.

England has five of the all-time best 11 scores batting second, has won the last 18 times it has chased in an ODI on home soil, and smashed a world-record 24 sixes in a win over West Indies in St. George’s in February.

“This England ODI side is like that great Aussie side,” former England captain Kevin Pietersen tweeted after Bayliss’ team chased down with ease a target of 359 to beat Pakistan in an ODI last week, comparing it with the all-conquering Australia squad of the early 2000s. “If Hayden didn’t get you, then Ponting would (and) if they missed out, Gilchrist would.

“This England team, the same, Roy, Bairstow, Buttler etc... SOOOOO good!”

Indeed, a settled and fearsome batting lineup can boast Moeen Ali sometimes as far down as No. 8, Jonny Bairstow and Eoin Morgan in the form of their lives, and Jos Buttler, possibly the most destructive and entertaining ODI batsman in the world.

Contrast this to four years ago, when selectors were still tinkering with the batting lineup right up to the 2015 tournament Down Under — Alastair Cook was axed just weeks before it started — and Gary Ballance was picked despite being a test specialist.

Meanwhile, England now has a reliable spinner in Adil Rashid and strong allrounders in Ben Stokes and Chris Woakes. There are still some question marks over the pace-bowling unit, although the late selection of Jofra Archer provides England with an X-factor.

There’s so much going for England that home fans are getting rightly excited. But are they just setting themselves up for another embarrassing failure at a crucial moment?

After all, since 1996, England has only a 27% success rate against full member nations in World Cup matches and no finish better than fifth.

England was similarly built up for the 2017 Champions Trophy, also on home soil, only for Morgan’s squad to freeze against Pakistan in the semifinals, scoring 211 in 49.5 overs on a worn, dry pitch against opponents who proved to be more adaptable.

That may prove to be a timely lesson, though. England has gone from strength to strength in the two years since. The squad appears united and single-minded, so much so that players came together and backed the removal of batsman Alex Hales from the World Cup group following an “off-field incident” — reportedly for twice testing positive for recreational drugs — that led to a recent suspension.

Hales once was regarded as a key ODI player for England, but has only been a backup for the past 18 months.

That’s an indication of how good a place England is in ahead of its moment of reckoning this summer.

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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

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