As Ben Stokes dragged himself back to the dressing room, muttering dark thoughts and shaking his head, it felt not so much like the end of England’s World Cup as the end of an era.
Stokes had just dragged Lahiru Kumara to deep mid-wicket after scoring a laborious 43 from 73 balls in an England innings, eventually recovering from his misery with 156 – a total that Sri Lanka brushed aside for the loss of two wickets . The entire match lasted 59 overs.
This result was both England’s worst nightmare and entirely in keeping with the chaotic nature of their title defence. And it raises serious questions about the ability of head coach Matthew Mott and captain Jos Buttler to get the best out of a talented but aging squad of cricketers.
Never before has an ODI team been as heavily populated with players in the 30-year-old age group as England is today. The end of some careers over 50 has just been accelerated. Even last year’s T20 triumph in Australia seems like a lifetime ago.
Chief executive Rob Key said on Tuesday that England needed time to “let the dust settle”. But that was before their latest horror show. When they lost to a fired-up Sri Lanka side led by former England coach Chris Silverwood, the dust seemed to be settling at an alarming pace.
England suffered another bitter defeat against Sri Lanka in the Cricket World Cup today
This is England’s fifth consecutive defeat against Sri Lanka in the World Cup since 2007
Some of those multi-year central contracts now look less clever. In fact, David Willey was the only England player to hit a six or take a wicket in the game – the only member of the World Cup squad left out of the new contracts.
Since England lost to Afghanistan in Delhi, it has been a matter of re-establishing contact with the white-ball giants, who still have both World Cups in their kitty – at least for a few more weeks.
Mott himself, Buttler, Stokes, Joe Root, Moeen Ali – they all took turns delivering a message that has been repeated so often that it has lost all meaning and all connection to reality.
Because let’s be honest: England’s entire World Cup strategy can be summed up in one expression of hope: everything will be fine this evening. It turns out it’s no basis for winning in cricket.
They played 42 ODIs between the end of the last World Cup and this one, having played 88 between the disaster of 2015 and the triumph of 2019. They rarely picked their best XI and relegated the 50-over format to third place in the rankings. Order behind Tests and T20s – fourth place if you count the hundred.
And they made a mess of their selection process, leaving the players on tenterhooks when it turned out World Cup 15 wasn’t as final as they had been told. Even here in India, team selection has felt more like a game of nailing the tail of the donkey.
Stokes’ non-resignation was entirely justified, as borne out by his England record 182 from 124 balls against New Zealand at The Oval. But it also said something about the last-minute nature of the planning. Then of course he injured his hip.
England’s Chris Woakes scored a duck in his innings before failing to take a single wicket
To win the toss, Buttler had little choice but to bat as he had been hit hard by the action against Afghanistan and South Africa. And briefly, Dawid Malan fought as if he had listened to pleas for aggression, smashing six fours as England moved to 45 without loss in the seventh over.
But when he provided returning veteran Angelo Mathews with his first ODI wicket in three-and-a-half years, England lapsed into the shyness that characterized their campaign.
Root was dismissed three times after heading for a non-existent single and has now made 16 off 33 balls in three innings since starting with a pair of half-centuries. Bairstow played an uncharacteristic slicer in the middle and Buttler came through with a booming drive. Meanwhile, Stokes barely managed to get off the pitch.
Liam Livingstone, who was fortunate enough to be recalled, played a full round from Kumara and has now made 31 runs in four innings. Moeen, who had doomed England with a flourish, hit the ball backwards.
The fiasco culminated when Adil Rashid dawdled out of his crease at the non-striker’s end while wicketkeeper Kusal Mendis deftly knocked the stumps to the ground. For the first time ever, England were eliminated with less than 200 points in consecutive World Cup games.
Willey gave a glimmer of hope with two early wickets, but Pathum Nissanka and Sadeera Samarawickrama scored to win.
Four defeats mean England’s worst record at a World Cup and their next opponents – in Lucknow on Sunday – are India. The rapidly improving Australians are also lurking. Things could get worse before they fly home next month.
In purely mathematical terms, England is not yet eliminated. In other words, they look downward and outward.