Team England preview: Defying convention, embracing aggression

Anything less than outright victory this time will feel like failure after a stunning run of form in recent years built on the back of its power-packed batting line-up.

England sits at No. 1 in the ODI world rankings and, if it can handle the pressure, has its best chance of winning a 50-over World Cup.   -  Getty Images

Four years ago, after it lost to Bangladesh in Adelaide to limp out of the last World Cup in the first round, few would have imagined England would enter this year’s tournament as favourite.

However, the transformation Eoin Morgan’s team has undergone since its humiliation in Australia and New Zealand has been dramatic.

Now it sits at No. 1 in the ODI world rankings and, if it can handle the pressure, has its best chance of winning a 50-over World Cup.

Three times previously England has lost in the final of this tournament, the last in 1992 when it was beaten by Pakistan in Melbourne.

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But anything less than outright victory this time will feel like failure after a stunning run of form in recent years built on the back of its power-packed batting line-up.

In Jonny Bairstow and Jason Roy, England possesses perhaps the most in-form opening partnership in ODI cricket. After the 4-0 series win against Pakistan on the eve of the tournament, the two players now have nine centuries between them in the past 14 months. They also have shared seven 100-plus stands in just 26 innings together and their average partnership is 64.42 at a run-rate of 7.20.

The bad news for England’s opponents is that once you get through the openers, you are then confronted by a succession of batsmen who are not only seasoned internationals, but some of the most explosive shot-makers the game has ever seen.

Joe Root, who comes in at No. 3, is perhaps the least dynamic of the top six, but he still averages above 50 in ODIs and has 14 centuries to his name.

Morgan, Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali are the engine room of England’s batting line-up and the players who can propel their team’s totals from promising to outright imposing.

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On four occasions since the 2015 World Cup, England has posted 400-plus scores, with two of them — the 444-3 against Pakistan at Trent Bridge in 2016 and the 481-6 against Australia at the same Nottingham venue last year — world-record totals.

Buttler, who is also the team’s vice-captain and wicketkeeper, is the most eye-catching of those power hitters. It is not an understatement to say that if you get him out early, teams stand a very good chance of restricting England to manageable totals.

Yet, if Buttler stays in for any length of time, the consequences can be devastating.

The most spectacular of his eight ODI centuries so far came against the West Indies in Grenada back in February, when Buttler unleashed a majestic exhibition of 360-degree power hitting to score 150 from 77 balls — an innings that included 13 fours and 12 sixes.

That day England posted 418-6. Yet, this was a match that also showcased perhaps this team’s biggest weakness — the propensity for the bowlers to switch off defending big totals.

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West Indies, led by Chris Gayle, almost pulled off a remarkable run chase, falling just 29 runs short. England’s bowlers, as has often been the case, did not cover themselves in glory, even if the flat pitch and small dimensions of the ground made their task much harder. The attack, though, has been significantly strengthened by the addition of Jofra Archer to England’s squad on the eve of the World Cup.

"He's (Jofra Archer) a special cricketer. He has pace, athleticism, dynamism and he can get you a wicket in any circumstances. There was a broad desire for him to be in the squad," says England selector Ed Smith.   -  REUTERS

The 24-year-old fast bowler, born in Barbados, qualified for his adopted country only in March. But in his three ODI appearances to date, he has showcased the skills that made him such a success in the Indian Premier League in recent years — notably the almost effortless action that sees him propel the ball at speeds in excess of 90 miles per hour on a regular basis.

Alongside Mark Wood, whose injury record has restricted his appearances in recent years, England possesses two genuine quick bowlers and, if they play together at the World Cup, they will be a handful for opposition batsmen.

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The attack also has bowlers in Liam Plunkett and Chris Woakes who are capable of exploiting English conditions to the full, while the spin pairing of Moeen and Adil Rashid has been adept at restricting the scoring rate during the middle overs of matches.

So while sometimes vulnerable, England’s bowling attack is still one of the best around, especially in home conditions.

As a team, the tournament favourite has not lost an ODI series now for more than three years — that defeat coming in South Africa in early 2016 when it threw away a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2.

India, last year, had come the closest to beating England at home after it won the opener of a three-match series at Trent Bridge and then eventually lost 2-1 following defeats at Lord’s and Headingley.

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Under Morgan’s leadership, this is a team that has embraced an attacking philosophy and, in a very un-English way, defied convention. This is a high-risk approach that doesn’t always come off. There have been several occasions in recent years when the aggressive batting style has been England’s downfall — most recently when it was bundled out for just 113 by West Indies at St. Lucia in March.

Then there was the semifinal of the 2017 Champions Trophy in Cardiff when, confronted by a spin-friendly pitch, the host was soundly beaten by Pakistan.

So while England may be favourite for the World Cup and ranked No. 1 in the world, it is not unbeatable. Far from it.

Star players

Jos Buttler: The most explosive batsman in a team full of phenomenal power hitters, Buttler has hit five of England’s 10 fastest ODI centuries of all time and the scary thing for the opposition is that two of them have come in the past three months.

Jofra Archer: The Barbados-born fast bowler only qualified for England in March but his ability to exceed 90 miles per hour with ease has added a significant attacking weapon to his adopted country’s attack. He promises to be one of the stars of the tournament.