Zombified England stagger on against Australia as 2019 legacy fades to grey

Zombified England stagger on against Australia as 2019 legacy fades to grey
Zombified England stagger on against Australia as 2019 legacy fades to grey

The previous World Cup left barely a trace, except for the euphoric recollections of a distinctive team and an unforgettable final.

It persists. It’s alive. It’s moving around. However, it’s important to note that it does so with a limp, a wheeze, and a noticeable absence of spark in the eyes.

As England’s World Cup campaign stumbles into Ahmedabad for Saturday’s clash with Australia, there is a tendency to label the remaining chapters of their title defence – a defence that stated it didn’t want to be called a defence and has now achieved its wish – as meaningless games. Despite this, the occasion still pulses with an undead vitality. Moreover, given its staging and fundamental geography, it is one of the more touching events in the heated recent history of English cricket. Welcome to the final phase of England’s World Cup defence 2023: the day and night of the living dead.

Technically, England are still alive in this World Cup. The statistics model gives them a 4% chance of reaching the semi-finals from their current position at the bottom of the table. This same projection also provides Australia with the tantalising prospect of helping to eliminate England from not just one, but two ICC tournaments in one fell swoop. A loss in Ahmedabad would mean England would need to win both remaining games in India to have a chance of qualifying for the next Champions Trophy in 2025.

The magnitude of England’s failure in India, a World Cup where they have been excessively poor, speaks to a sense of broader forces at work. No England team has ever lost so many games at a World Cup. No England team has ever been relegated to the level of absolute tournament strugglers. No England team has ever made such a dramatic plunge from 50-over champions to one of the worst versions at any World Cup – and even more remarkably, they did so without any clear process, warning signs, change of strategy, or indeed any idea how this could have happened.

“We’ve been terrible,” was Ben Stokes’s best guess at the Narendra Modi Stadium on the eve of Saturday’s game. This statement, at least, rings true, especially given the perplexing situation inside the England bubble, which feels not just like the end of an era, but also like a mystery, an unsolved crime.

However, if you step back a bit and consider the broader context, a more connected narrative begins to emerge. For starters, there is a delightful sense of drama in England and Australia meeting in Gujarat. Welcome to the new seat of power, Victorian overlords of the colonial summer game.

This World Cup is, of course, the most nationalistic, a crowning moment not just for India’s ascent to cricketing supremacy, but also for Narendra Modi’s use of the national team and the national sport as tools for his own politics.

Ahmedabad is the capital of Modi’s home state Gujarat, and a power base for his BJP party and the BCCI, led by the remarkably young 35-year-old administrator Jay Shah, who, coincidentally, is also the son of Modi’s oldest political ally.

The stadium is Modi’s own imperial circus, the world’s largest sports ground after the Rungrado 1st of May Stadium in North Korea. A comparison has already been made between this ODI World Cup and Qatar 2023, with the suggestion that it should be condemned in the same terms, as a sports washing machine for an ambitious and sometimes brutal political regime.

Modi’s World Cup is more of an election rally than a global power play. But international cricket – in effect, all cricket everywhere – has been a potent tool in promoting his aspirational Hindu nationalism. Ahmedabad is now the home of the global game, and the Modi stadium is a kind of Gujarati Lord’s.

For England’s players, who will once again bravely march out in their tattered uniforms on Saturday, it may feel a bit like a hazing ritual for the world order. Behold the shadows of your former glory. This thing lives here now.

It’s no wonder they might look a little tired. On Friday morning, Stokes firmly maintained that every England game is a special occasion. He perked up briefly at the mention of Mohammed Shami’s extraordinary bowling against Sri Lanka the night before, but had no response to a question about “anything funny or nice” that had happened in the tournament to date. (“Err … I wasn’t prepared for that question”).

On England’s fall from champions to backmarkers, he had no answers: “If we knew what’s gone wrong, we’d be able to fix it.” This shared sense of confusion has been the company line to date. It feels revealing in itself. This team has thrived on group-think, shared methods, a sealed environment. When you’re winning, this takes you all in the same direction with a wonderful sense of clarity. When you’re losing, it can do the same thing.

From outside that bubble, it isn’t hard to see why England have struggled. The team is essentially the same team, just a little weaker and four years older. Preparation was limited. Injured players were selected. Harry Brook, the only A-grade talent to have actually emerged in the past four years, has been successfully messed around with.

Zombified England stagger on against Australia as 2019 legacy fades to grey

The batters seem to have forgotten how they won the last World Cup by retaining the ability for critical thinking, going smarter rather than harder in difficult moments. Perhaps a more experienced and authoritative coach would have had the confidence to shake things up before the tournament, to sense the need for a revival rather than crossing fingers and hoping for more of the same. 스포츠중계

But it would still be wrong to describe England’s collapse here as an anomaly, a rare event, the result of human error. Because in many ways, this is the most representative of England teams, a far more accurate gauge of the base level of domestic cricket than the champions of 2019.

The White-Ball Revolution era has always wanted to mean something. Four years ago, there was a lot of talk about legacy, about not just growing but saving the game, of providing a genuine spark.

In reality, that tournament left almost no imprint beyond the euphoric memories of a unique team and an unforgettable final. England’s World Cup winners were the ECB’s equivalent of the Team GB Olympic aesthetic, the successful channeling of resources and energy into the elite tier, gold medals as public relations, a way of spreading a veneer of good news over the structures beneath.

If the team has failed to refresh itself in the years since, this should come as no surprise because that success spoke to nothing but itself, the moment, elite cultivation of a one-off generation. There has been no actual watering of the roots, no coherent pathway created. How do you make another Jofra Archer? Or another Eoin Morgan? Adil Rashid emerged despite, not because of, the wider culture around him.

Despite all the talk, the PR initiatives, the glossy montages, four years on from those pre-Covid days, cricket in England is still a dwindling summer pastime, largely invisible to the uninitiated, enclosed in its private garden. If anything, it is more remote now, more niche. The real issue for the ECB is not that the England team is in a state of chaos, but that the wider world really doesn’t seem to care that the England team is in a state of chaos; that what we have here is a trash fire in a void.

If there are no easy answers to exactly how and why this team’s decline has been so steep, then perhaps this is because the only answers are hard answers, structural answers, answers that speak more clearly to the way the sport, like the players, has been squeezed so thin.

For now, this England team is good enough and angry enough to rouse itself for Australia in Ahmedabad. There is still a chance to dress the corpse of that title defence, to trim its beard for the wake, to add a few well-chosen words to the eulogy, and to enjoy, in the heat of the home of cricket, the passing of another torch.