The World Cup has been invigorated by two upsets. The victories for Bangladesh and Pakistan do not constitute acts of giantkilling, but they were unexpected. The higher-ranked sides have been outplayed. As a consequence South Africa, in particular, are feeling the strain while England are chastened – or at least they should be.
The two vastly experienced captains of the defeated teams reacted differently. Faf du Plessis, after the defeat by Bangladesh, said that he was “extremely disappointed”; he was “gutted” that his team were “just not firing” and he admitted that he had probably made a substantial mistake at the toss when – for the second time at the Oval – he decided to field on a dry surface.
Eoin Morgan was not so candid and more predictable after England’s defeat. He was naturally critical of his side’s performance in the field, a deficiency that could be spotted by beach cricketers upwards. “We’ve gone from probably one of our best performances in the field at the Oval to not extremely bad, but it’s cost us probably about 15 or 20 runs in the field, which is a lot in a one-day game,” he said.
Ostensibly it is hard to argue with any of that. Yet there is an odd assumption by Morgan here. Take away 20, the number of unnecessary runs conceded by England, according to Morgan, and we reach the figure of 328. The England captain may well remember that the highest successful run-chase in World Cup history is 328. This took place in Bengaluru in 2011; the chasers were Ireland, the victims were England. Somehow Morgan was not playing for either side.
So Morgan is implying that he would have been reasonably content if his England side had only to equal the highest run-chase to defeat Pakistan on Monday. If that really is the case a rethink may be needed.
There is a huge difference between a World Cup match and a standard one-day international, which is part of a three- or five-match series. Even in the preliminary stages of the tournament there is far more tension and adrenaline in a World Cup contest. One only has to witness the hard hands and wayward thinking of so many English fielders at Trent Bridge. They were out of focus and easily riled. Some of them seemed keener to look for an argument than the ball.
Morgan did not even consider the wisdom of his decision at the toss. The sun had been out for more than five hours by the start of the match; the pitch was dry, brown and true yet Morgan routinely chose to bowl; he has declared to the world that his team prefer to chase and, to be fair, they have been successful batting second. He was in no mood to change tack, especially after Pakistan’s collapse against the West Indies.
However, there is surely virtue in paying more attention to the conditions than the instinctive preferences of his team. At the toss the captain must calculate how his side can be in the ascendancy after the first innings in the match. If he senses an opportunity to bowl the opposition out for something under about 260-270 then that is a good option. But if there is the opportunity to post a score in excess of 300, why not take it? Runs on the board count for more in World Cup games. The chasers become more conscious of the consequence of defeat and it is more difficult to bat with freedom when the outcome really matters. This is, of course, one of the delights of the World Cup. England do not seem to take that into account