In Voltaire’s Bastards John Ralston Saul provides an interesting insight into how Allied generals tended to explain their failed advances in the First World War. In their view, it was never the fault of their plans. Their plans were perfect, having been developed using the very best data that modern science could provide. The fault, therefore, had to be found with the soldiers, who had failed to carry out their orders in the manner demanded. And so it went on throughout the war, as failure upon failure mounted up and those at the top just shrugged their shoulders and suggested that next time would be better, as long as the troops at the front did what was asked of them.
The parallel is probably a little laboured, but it at least makes it sound like we’ve read a book or two (outside of those written by Max Walker anyway). English management treat its players like robots who, so long as they follow their instructions to the absolute letter, cannot fail to succeed. The run chase against Bangladesh was a perfect example of this mentality. You could tell from the outset that it had been planned ahead of time to an extraordinary degree, using all the information available to modern cricket coaches. Benchmarks would have been well laid out well in advance. At each stage of the innings, if they were at a certain total with a certain number of wickets remaining, then victory was guaranteed.
Instead, when the required run rate started to inch upwards, batsmen who should have focused on retaining wickets in the shed instead lost their composure and collectively shat themselves. It’s not surprising that Moores complained about the team’s inexperience afterwards, raising Trott’s absence as a key factor in the team’s loss. Now there is a robotic player whose performance you could rely on.
It’s difficult to think of another team in the World Cup that would have adopted England’s approach to this chase. Knowing the pressure of the situation, knowing that the players had consistently underperformed in the tournament to date and could not help but feel weighed down by media scrutiny and public expectation, the English management adopted a course that, whilst statistically logical, only served to place the players under even more pressure. Any other team would have looked down the order, seen someone like Hales, and sent him out at the top of the order with the freedom to bat as he liked. If he scored 50 off 35 balls and subsequently got out, so what? He would have put the team well ahead of the curve and they could coast to the finishing line from there. And if he failed, they could rebuild and then try once again to launch further down the line by promoting Buttler or Taylor up the order.
It’s what New Zealand would have done. So too Australia, South Africa, India and basically any other respectable team in the tournament. Instead they retained Ali as their top order ‘maverick’, and when he failed, everyone else had to dogmatically follow the script of retaining wickets, whilst the dot balls and pressure mounted. The most amusing part of a game that was, in truth, bloody hilarious throughout, was when during the last drinks break a message was sent out to Buttler and Woakes, which clearly must have said that they were in a hopeless position and should simply just start throwing the bat. What followed was the only period in the game where England actually looked in danger of running down the target.
But it was too little too late. And in Moores’s post match conference it was clear that it was the players who were at fault for not performing in the manner expected, whilst the ECB’s mouthpieces merely shrugged their shoulders and pointed out that the players had been given the best preparation possible in the time that they (the coaches) were allowed. All of this is redolent of Andy Flower’s tenure over the team, and his shadow clearly still lingers. But this isn’t the team England had even twelve months ago, and the continuing insistence of treating the players like automatons ensures they will continue to under perform and subsequently prove to be far less effective than the sum of their parts.