In the same way the ice bergs didn’t “put any doubt” in the mind of the captain of Titanic, some of England’s batsmen seem determined not to allow “any doubt” – or even reason – to be put in their minds when they bat in limited-overs cricket.
That’s how it seemed as they stumbled over the line at The Oval, anyway. Thanks to David Willey’s highest – and probably best – ODI innings, England may be able to paper over (sandpaper over, if you will) the cracks in this performance. But there were, once again, a few warning signs they would be best to heed ahead of the World Cup in a year’s time.
The problem – not for the first time – is that England seem unable to harness the welcome aggression with which they now play limited-overs cricket with just a modicum of common sense.
Take the dismissal of Moeen Ali. By the time he was out at The Oval, England required only 18 to win and they had 69 balls in which to score them. All he needed to do – as the last senior batsman – was keep the strike and pick off the runs when the opportunity arose.
Instead he went for the big stroke. And, after he was taken at deep midwicket, England were forced to rely on two bowlers – albeit bowlers who can bat – to see them over the line. On another day, against a more incisive attack, it is a mistake that will cost them. They have to learn to play more sophisticated cricket.
It wasn’t the first time Moeen had made this error. Just a few days previously, in Edinburgh, he had done something similar: with 25 required from the final 28 balls of the match, he had tried to hit a six and been caught on the long-on boundary. It seemed an unnecessary risk. He was the eighth-wicket to fall and England subsequently lost.
In between the games, Moeen defended the approach by saying it was best “not to have any sort of doubt.” He insisted he would “stay true” to himself and continue to take such an approach. And, a few days later, he showed he was true to his word.
Moeen wasn’t the only one, either. While Jos Buttler, caught at mid-on, was probably the victim of a fine slower-ball, it again seemed unnecessarily aggressive to try to hit over the infield in the match situation. And while Jonny Bairstow may well feel his pull was so well struck that he deserved a boundary, the fact is he hit it almost straight to the man placed for the shot on the leg-side boundary. It was a naive stroke.
There’s a context here. So keen were England to embrace a new mindset in their ODI cricket following the debacle of the 2015 World Cup that it was, for a while, essentially they played uncompromising, unmitigated, undiluted, aggressive limited-overs cricket. They needed that approach to take root. They needed it to become the norm.
But we’ve moved on from that now. And while the general approach is still welcome, it seems fair to add a little sophistication to it. So while nobody is asking them to play the percentage cricket that was the hallmark of earlier generations of England teams, it does seem fair to expect them to temper their aggression to cater for the match situation or even bowler-friendly conditions. Even Lewis Hamilton slows down for corners.
There was lots to admire about England’s performance at The Oval. Their two main spinners – who claimed 5 for 79 in 20 overs between them – were especially impressive, with Adil Rashid not conceding a boundary until his ninth over and Moeen going into his tenth having conceded only a four and a six. Equally, Eoin Morgan and Joe Root batted with calm common to break the back of the run chase.
It is true, too, that, with both bat and ball, England are missing Chris Woakes. Not only is Woakes their highest-rated ODI bowler, but he has increasingly gained a reputation as a calm head in the batting order. His worth to this side has been best demonstrated by his absence.
But just as England were knocked out of the ICC Champions Trophy last year through an inability to adapt to conditions, so Morgan will know his side have to add some wisdom to their flair if they are to win the World Cup next year.
“We were below par with the bat,” he admitted, “but we found a way to get over the line. Finding a way to get over the line was important.”
Morgan will know, however, that England got away with it at The Oval. And he will know that they won’t get away with it against better sides. Or sides which are not shorn of at least five first choice players, as this Australia side was.
By the time the World Cup comes around, England still need to be playing this type of aggressive, fearless cricket. But if they are to win it, they will surely need to complement it with the ability to adapt, adjust and temper their wonderful aggression with just a little nous.