England’s burden of expectation in ‘their’ World Cup

England’s power hitters have made them the ICC Cricket World Cup favourites in a tournament they are hosting. They’ve never been more scared.

They don’t agree on much in the United Kingdom, but from London to Manchester, Southampton to Durham, whispers have grown into loud unified declarations. If a referendum were held tomorrow, there would be near consensus; England are going to win the Cricket World Cup.

Expectation does strange things to people. For those still insecure about their virginity in whatever conquest they’re pursuing, this can lead to interesting outcomes.

Take South Africa and the tragicomedy that is their journey in the World Cup. Dropped catches, impossible maths, rain, tears, Australia, Lara and that run out in Birmingham. It’s been one sad story after another. But this is not a tale of a downtrodden underdog. This is the story of Goliath losing round after round by slinging a rock into his own temple.

Cronje, Pollock, Smith, De Villiers … irrepressible leaders and players at the head of teams filled with world beaters were unable to turn their favourites tags into success. Faf du Plessis, arguably a better skipper than any South African before him, must be falling asleep with a smile on his movie-star face knowing that the nation back home do not expect him to declare any silverware at OR Tambo airport in July.

England’s burden of expectation

Eoin Morgan, England’s captain, has no such luxury. They’re at home. All their players have either warmed up in the Indian Premier League or the competitive domestic scene. They have assembled a batting arsenal with as much firepower as the Dam Busters. They’re expected to win. Anything else, even a loss in the final – something they have not done since 1992 and something South Africa has yet to do – will not suffice.

Expectation in South Africa breeds a particular type of hubris. South Africans play a muscular brand of sport. When they get a chance to flex their muscles as one of the heavyweights, they oblige willingly. Australia act similarly. The two former British colonies share a view that sport is a means of asserting oneself on the world stage, that there is a “hard but fair” code of conduct and that there is no sweeter taste than to put one over the former empire.

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English sensibilities do not allow for such overt displays of chest thumping. The English gave the world the blueprints for the games we all play but also the prescribed manner in which to play them, both tangibly and abstractly. Cricket, more than any other team sport, retains an idealistic attachment to the abstract.

Speaking on the Final Word Podcast – hosted by Australians Geoff Lemon and Adam Collins – English correspondent for Cricbuzz, Vithushan Ehantharajah, summed up the way this juxtaposition of confidence and temperance can manifest:

“England fans know the kind of team they have. They know that this is the best opportunity that they’ve ever had to win a World Cup and be so heavily rated. For that very reason, they’ve never been more scared.”

Unleashing the beast

But that is what happens when you win a lot of cricket matches. Since the 2015 World Cup, where England were unceremoniously dumped out at the group stage after a 15-run loss to Bangladesh, Morgan and coach Trevor Bayliss have not simply thrown off the shackles of conservative cricket, they’ve chucked them in a chest and tossed them in the Thames.

Since 2015, England have surpassed 400 runs in 50 overs four times. The only other team to get past the 400-run mark, the Proteas, did so just once during that period. In that time, England have passed 350 on 13 occasions. South Africa are next best with nine. What was once a limited-overs side playing an outdated brand of cricket is now revolutionising the way runs are scored. How did this happen?

For Graham Thorpe, who played in two World Cups for England and now serves as the side’s batting coach, it comes down to a shift in mindset.

“Trevor [Bayliss] and Eoin [Morgan] said from the very beginning that they wanted characters in the side who were not afraid to fail,” Thorpe told New Frame. “They wanted players who lived for the big moments, who wanted to be the centre of attention and who backed themselves to unleash their talent no matter the situation. It sounds simple, but in the past English cricket was hampered by worrying about the consequences. That is no longer the case.”

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But all the gumption in the world won’t buy a run if it’s not supported by sound technique and the physical attributes to routinely thrash the world’s best bowlers into row Z. This is where things get interesting.

Around 2011, Thorpe hosted a batting coaching course where innovators and tinkerers were invited to share their ideas. Included in the throng was Julian Wood, a former first-class cricketer with Hampshire whose aggressive approach to batting frustrated his old-school coaches.

Since retirement, he had travelled the world in search of new philosophies and found himself in Texas, rubbing shoulders with the coaching staff at Major League Baseball side The Rangers. It was there that his doctrine began to take shape.

“I studied the way hitters transferred power from the legs, through the hips and up through the arms before snapping their wrists into their shots,” said Wood, who claims to have coined the now ubiquitous term of “power hitting” present in cricket’s modern lexicon.

“I know cricket and baseball are different sports, but at the end of the day it’s about hitting a ball with a stick. This was the new dawn of T20 cricket and I developed a few practices that would allow batsmen to increase their range of hitting and stroke play.”

Much more than ‘see ball, hit ball’

Equipped with these new tools, Wood shared them with Thorpe, who was instantly sold on the idea. He was whisked to Loughborough, England and Wales Cricket Board’s high performance centre, to put his theories into practice. After just one session with big hitters like Alex Hales and Michael Lumb, the data showed an increase in both hand speed and the velocity of the ball off the bat.

It wasn’t just about see ball, hit ball. Wood tore up the old coaching manual that has long advocated for a universally accepted technique. “We’re all told from a young age to get our head over the pitch of the ball,” Wood explained. “But this is only useful when the ball is swinging. If you play like this against a ball that isn’t moving, you’re limiting where you can hit it.”

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By maintaining some distance between where the ball bounces and a batter’s head position, previously restricted areas of the field opened up. Paddle sweeps, ramps over third man, inside out cover drives, flat bat swats down the ground … unconventional shots soon became the norm. Add in refined body positions allowing for a more stable base and improved dexterity in the wrists, and bowlers became little more than cannon fodder.

With a wider spectrum of shotmaking, batsmen’s views began to expand. “Tailenders were always told to get off strike,” Wood said. “That was their primary objective. But if they’re facing eight balls out of the last four overs with 40 to get, and they get a single off each, that means the batsman at the other end needs to score 32 from 24, and that’s the best-case scenario. Now, England can win games with their numbers nine and 10 at the crease.”

Taming a raging inferno with fire

Helium allows zeppelins to soar above the clouds, but if something goes wrong they collapse in a raging inferno. Against Kagiso Rabada unleashing thunderbolts at Lord’s in May 2017, England’s gung-ho approach saw them crash to 20/6 before being bundled out for 153 inside 32 overs. A month later, at the Champions Trophy semifinal at Sophia Gardens, Pakistan picked up regular wickets on a difficult surface to knock the favourites out of their own competition.

“It comes with the territory,” is Thorpe’s resigned summation. “You can’t worry about those failures. Every team has the propensity to collapse. We just have to trust our methods and hope that it doesn’t happen in a crucial knockout game.”

Expectation does funny things to people and the English are no exception. With less than a month to go before the Cricket World Cup kicks off, power hitter Hales has been axed from the squad after testing positive for illicit substances for the second time in his career. The debate over the inclusion of Jofra Archer, the Barbados born all-rounder who recently qualified for selection, has thrown into question concepts like team unity and social cohesion.

The closer certain nations circle cricket trophies, the more they work themselves into tangles and missteps. In case the English need reminding, they only have to ask their South African opponents in the tournament’s curtain raiser on 30 May at The Oval.

England World Cup Squad: Eoin Morgan (captain), Moeen Ali, Jonny Bairstow (wicketkeeper), Jos Buttler (wicketkeeper), Tom Curran, Joe Denly, Liam Plunkett, Adil Rashid, Joe Root, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes, David Willey, Chris Woakes and Mark Wood.

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