Talking to England’s players and coaches over the last few weeks as a World Cup campaign that started in optimism dissolved into chaos and cluelessness, a common theme emerged: no one has the remotest idea why it is happening or what to do about it.
Players who over long careers have honed failsafe methods for mentally, physically and technically preparing themselves for matches, systems that have established them among the elite of the world game, have found those techniques suddenly useless.
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Coaches with impeccable reputations, who have guided multiple teams to multiple major trophies, have been unable to suggest a remedy. During successful careers they have worked out reliable, repeatable approaches that give teams the greatest chance of achieving their goals, and if suddenly they no longer work, they have nothing.
On Sunday England, after winning one in five, losing their last three, and playing on the other side of the country three days earlier, face India, who have won all five and had a full week to prepare. Should that somehow end in victory nobody would have any idea how that happened either.
Marcus Trescothick, England’s assistant coach, whose job is to prepare the batters to perform to the best of their ability, essentially admitted he had no clue why he was failing so badly or how to turn it around. “The thing that’s baffled me the most is that it’s been consistent across the board,” he says.
“Bar the game at Dharamsala where we played Bangladesh, there’s just never been the consistency of people getting the runs, and they have to understand why it is. As a batting coach you go through the simple processes and I’m trying to understand what it is. You talk to the players, you work with the players and they all give you the same sort of process and response.
“You can’t just go around in circles and just throw candles in the wind and sort of see where it all comes down, and say: ‘Oh, let’s try something completely random today’. It’s not been working. We live on consistency almost.
“When you’re playing well you do the same sort of principles. You get a bit robotic and you go about the same processes and there’s no real reason to change, unless you get to the end of it and go: ‘Bang, we’ve got to do something completely left field.’ We’ve tried mixing it up with different practices, different energies and then working with the guys individually on their normal stuff, but it’s just not quite worked at the moment.”
England’s dressing room has become a downbeat place these last few weeks, but also a confused one, a place full of questions and bereft of answers. “I think they’re trying to understand it,” Trescothick said of the players. “Whether confusion is the right word, I’m not sure. But it [form] has not gone, it’s just hiding in a funny place at the moment. It’s not suddenly disappeared and they’re never going to score runs again. They’ll rebound from this and rebound back into form at some point. But it might be too late for this competition.”
KL Rahul said India would not be underestimating England. Photograph: Gareth Copley/Getty Images
KL Rahul, India’s wicketkeeper, is returning to Lucknow for the first time since he sustained a serious thigh injury playing here for his IPL side, Lucknow Super Giants, in May. “Hopefully I can put that aside and make some better and happier memories,” he said.
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Rahul was asked what he made of England’s complete and irredeemable hopelessness. “We don’t think of any opposition that way,” he said. “Any team on the given day can be dangerous and I am sure you have seen enough cricket matches to know that there is no team that starts off as favourite in a game of cricket or in any sport.”
India v England probable teams
India: Rohit Sharma (c), Shubman Gill, Virat Kohli, Shreyas Iyer, KL Rahul (wk), Suryakumar Yadav, Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Kuldeep Yadav.
England: Jonny Bairstow, Dawid Malan, Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Harry Brook, Jos Buttler (c/wk), Moeen Ali, David Willey, Chris Woakes, Adil Rashid, Gus Atkinson.
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Clearly the last bit is not even remotely true, but still Rahul is close to something here. In winning the World Cup as favourites four years ago, particularly given how appallingly bad they had been in 2015, and in improvising with New Zealand an unequalled drama in the final, England demonstrated several wonderful facets of this game. Their unexpected misery over the last three weeks has demonstrated a couple more.
All sports are to a degree predictable, but there must always be the possibility of something completely unanticipated, that suddenly, temporarily, all reason will be lost, up will become down, black white and good bad. Sports benefit from occasional reminders that what was true yesterday, and last month, and four years ago, might not be true tomorrow.
England’s failure is proof that nothing can be assumed. And it is a lesson that, however painful, their players, coaches, and administrators might just have needed.