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England’s bowling is their weaker suit in One Day Internationals, but is their own team’s lack of faith in their bowlers creating more problems?

“When you win the toss – bat. If you are in doubt, think about it, then bat. If you have very big doubts, consult a colleague – then bat.” – W.G Grace

The above quote, or some variation on it, will no doubt be familiar to a great number of those who are reading this. It is a piece of cricketing wisdom that has survived the years since it was first uttered by being, more or less, accurate. Times do change, however, and like many adages, it (unsurprisingly) holds up less well in the modern era than it did in the 19th century. In this case, thankfully, this can be rectified by adding the following sentence: “If you are the England ODI team, bowl. Always bowl.”

At first, this might sound like an over-statement. In the lead up to the previous World Cup in 2015, England’s ODI batting was widely regarded, then brutally exposed as, substandard. Since then, however, they have totally re-invented their batting which has proceeded to bring them well-documented acclaim. Here are some of the key numbers (please note that matches in which there was no result have been excluded from all statistics in this article):

England when batting first post-2015 World Cup
Innings: 39
Average score: 304
400+ scores: 4
Matches won: 24
Matches lost: 15
Win/Loss ratio: 1.6
Win rate: 61.5%

Now, these numbers are very impressive. I’m not contesting that. Since the end of that disastrous World Cup campaign, England have done some incredible things batting first, not least breaking the world record for highest ODI score, then later smashing their own record by 37 runs. So why am I saying that, given the choice, England should never choose to bat first. Let’s look at what happens when they don’t:

England when batting second post-2015 World Cup
Innings: 38
Matches won: 29
Matches lost: 8
Matches tied: 1
Win/Loss ratio: 3.625
Win rate: 76.3%

These numbers are, basically, more impressive. Contrary to what the great W.G Grace may think, conventional wisdom in ODIs has been for a while that you should bowl first given the chance. England’s results over the last few years certainly bear that out: their win rate increases by 15% when batting second compared to when batting first. As a proportion of their bat-first win rate, England are 25% more likely to win by chasing a total than by defending one. Just quickly, let’s have a look at the numbers for the other top-9 teams over the same period:

Batting first Batting second
Won Lost Tied Win rate (%) Won Lost Tied Win rate (%) Difference
India 22 10 1 66.7 33 14 1 68.8 1.03x
New Zealand 25 17 0 59.5 18 13 0 58.1 0.98%
South Africa 20 13 1 58.8 22 13 0 62.9 1.07%
Pakistan 14 17 0 45.2 37 21 0 63.8 1.41%
Australia 15 19 0 44.1 14 16 0 46.7 1.06%
Bangladesh 17 14 0 54.8 13 11 0 54.2 0.99%
Sri Lanka 10 28 1 25.6 13 22 0 37.1 1.45%
West Indies 9 19 2 30.0 8 20 2 26.7 0.89%

A fairly interesting table. Five of the eight teams range from ever-so-slightly worse to a little bit better when chasing, with the difference being fairly minor either way. The West Indies show an appreciable drop in success when chasing, but, with respect, they’ve won so few ODIs over the period in question that this only actually represents one fewer win in the same number of matches. Similarly, Sri Lanka’s striking 45% improvement when chasing is somewhat due to this effect too, though to a lesser extent.

Pakistan, however, appear to be a more extreme version of England, as over a decent sample size, they’ve been 40% more likely to win when batting second. Perhaps I should be writing this article about them.

Anyway, I’m not, so back to England.

The reason why I have decided to look into this particular topic isn’t so much that England lose more when they bat first, it’s how badly they lose when they do, why they lose so badly and why they play the way they do which leads to this. Let’s now take a look at England’s four worst recent performances when batting first, highlighting when each innings was at its most desperate point:

Opponent Low point Total Chase
Australia, 2015 85/7 (20 overs)* 138/9 (33 overs)* 140/2 (24.2 overs)
South Africa, 2017 20/6 (5 overs) 153 (31.1 overs) 156/3 (28.5 overs)
Australia, 2018 8/5 (6.2 overs) 196 (44.5 overs) 197/7 (37 overs)
West Indies, 2019 113 (28.1 overs) 113 (28.1 overs) 115/3 (12.1 overs)

*Eoin Morgan had also retired hurt by this point, and did not resume his innings

Not pretty reading. The most recent entry, against the West Indies, is a bit on an exception to the rule insofar as the start innings, whilst bad, was not as dreadful as the other entries in the table – in this case, the lower order – supposedly a big part of England’s strength as a batting unit – subsided in short order, with No.s 8, 9 and 10 all dismissed for 0 (the No. 11, Mark Wood, did not face a ball).

In each of the first three cases, the opposite was true – the top and middle order failed, in two cases spectacularly, and each time the lower (and bits of the middle) order put in performances ranging from respectable to impressive, as follows:

Australia, 2015: 53 for the last two wickets (particularly impressive when you consider that England’s No. 11 in this match was Reece Topley)

South Africa, 2017: 133 for the last four wickets

Australia, 2018: 188 for the last five wickets

Also worth noting is the ease with which the opposition generally chased down the scores they had restricted England to. Only Australia wobbled slightly in their pursuit of the target – the other three matches ended with very comfortable wins of seven wickets or better. This shows that conditions were far from unplayable – certainly, the pitch was doing a bit in each of the innings and England probably had to bat when the pitch was at its spiciest, but the following descriptions of wickets falling from Cricinfo tell the story:

“4.5 throws the bat, thick-edged to second… England are five down! Superb catch from Faf du Plessis, that went very quickly as Buttler attempted to thrash it through the covers. Not quite as quickly as England are subsiding, but still 20/5”

“4.6 edged and gone – THIS IS ABSURD!!! Rashid goes for a big booming drive from his first ball, du Plessis scoops it up low to his left this time… and Rabada is on a hat-trick! Perhaps England are trying to get their shocker out of the way before the Champions Trophy, but this is golden-era awful from a country that knows a fair bit about being rubbish at ODIs 20/6”

“5.3 dug in, Root wafts at a pull, gets a big, ballooning top edge… and Hazlewood pockets the catch at fine leg! Root bags a duck and England are four down! Good pace and bounce, the bumper got too big for Root and he sent it right down the fielder’s gullet. This could get ugly 6/4“

“24.5 short of a length, and Moeen edges a flaccid drive to the keeper! Done by pace and bounce, as have several batsmen on this pitch… Not much of a surprise, given Moeen’s relative strengths and weaknesses, but that was nevertheless an accident waiting to happen against a quicker bowler like Thomas 111/6”

“26.3 short ball, Woakes pulls… and sends it tamely to midwicket! England sink further, again pace doing the trick! It was on him quickly, the bat turning in the hands, and it barely got off the square. A duck for Woakes on his birthday! 111/7”

Admittedly, I have cherry-picked some of the worst dismissals and there were also a number of dismissals where the batsman did little to nothing wrong and was undone by excellent bowling which made perfect use of the conditions on offer. That’s fine: it happens – I don’t like it, but there’s nothing you can do about it. What isn’t fine are talented players with a significant amount of international experience throwing their wickets away in the ways described above, with seemingly no regard for the match situation.

It’s a simplistic approach, but given how well England’s lower order performed in the first three matches in that table above, let’s assume that with a couple more of the batsmen playing intelligently, England had managed to add another one hundred runs to their eventual totals. What difference would that have made? Ok, so they’d probably still have lost the first two, but they’d most likely have won the third. Only one more win, but if this was in the context of a Champions’ Trophy or World Cup and that ‘one more win’ was the final, that’d would be sort of a big deal.

Now, as is often pointed out, England’s bowling attack is by no means world-beating, and more often than not they will struggle to defend a less-than-substantial total, which is the best England could have reasonably hoped for even if they’d applied themselves better after bad starts to those innings. Is this why, then, the adopt this ‘Sydney or the Bush’ approach, because they feel the only way they can win a match after a bad start is to continue attacking at all costs and hope they manage to put up a daunting total anyway? Perhaps this is the logic they work by, but I don’t think it should be. Though I wouldn’t expect England to defend, say, 250 very often, I’d back them to do it more frequently than I would them to reach 350 after being 10/3, 15/4 after five overs or thereabouts. And anyway, I can’t actually recall a time recently where England have made what you’d call a ‘big’ total after an outright bad start with the bat – all their biggest scores had come, if memory serves, when the start of their innings has been, at worst, merely decent. When things do go wrong, England’s batsmen need to cut their losses and show some faith in their bowlers.

Is there time for England to change before the World Cup, where rain and heavy use of the pitches could well conspire to offer up the conditions which they’ve tended to capitulate in? They have a few ODIs, mostly against Pakistan, before the start of the World Cup, so there’s a reasonable chance there will be a match where they bat first and start badly and hopefully, this time, apply themselves. Even if they still lose, if they can run it close – say Pakistan chase down 260 with two wickets in hand, hopefully it’ll help them realise that it’s the approach that will work more often than the one they currently seem to be blindly wedded to.

This year, England are hosting the World Cup for the first time in 20 years, and will no doubt want to give their home fans something to remember. Let’s just hope that the ‘something’ doesn’t turn out to be them reaching the final and getting bowled out with 30 overs.

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