Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Why England have lost their title, and what they can learn from history: World Cup Super Sixes review

I made two main predictions regarding the Super Sixes in my earlier blog post. The first is rather predictable, because it's what most people have been saying since the tournament began.

I'd like to hope we're on target for another Australia-England final.

The second is now rather more apt.

if there's one lesson we can take from this's that cricket defies expectation and predictability. Anything could happen! I love it!

I feel like berating my past self for writing that, because “anything” has happened. The West Indies have beaten both New Zealand and Australia, and will play the latter in the final on Sunday. Fine, but in the process they have also knocked out England, the defending champions, and left Charlotte Edwards and a squad of England players, not to mention yours truly, pretty heart-broken.

It'll be the West Indies' first ever World Cup final, and it was their first ever victory against Australia in an ODI, just as that victory against New Zealand two days ago was their first ever ODI win against the Kiwis. I've already written about the fact that this tournament has contained some of the biggest upsets women's cricket has ever seen – it's worth checking out that post because it puts this tournament into some kind of historical context. Suffice it to say here that the women's World Cup final has previously always featured two teams out of Australia, England, New Zealand and India.

This isn't just a first for the West Indies, therefore. It's a first for the women's game full-stop.

England are out, and despite the comforting 15-run win against New Zealand today there will inevitably be numerous post-mortems. How do they recover from this? There is an obvious historical parallel here. The last time the World Cup was held in India was back in 1997. England were defending champions, having won in 1993, and went into the tournament as strong favourites to retain their title.

Instead, they lost their group match to Australia by eight wickets, and were knocked out in the semi-finals by New Zealand, losing by 20 runs.

Why? They could have blamed their crazy schedule (which involved a stupid amount of flights and train rides around India). They could have blamed the poor umpiring: in their semi-final match against New Zealand, they were fined one over of their innings for taking five minutes too long to bowl their 50 overs. The unfortunate thing was that the umpires neglected to tell them this until they had already batted out half their overs. Given the small margin of victory, that one over could have been crucial.

That wasn't the whole story, though. The truth was they were taken by surprise by two teams who had come on in leaps and bounds since the 1993 World Cup. In 1992 the New Zealand WCA had merged with the men's New Zealand Cricket Board and the benefits of such a move in terms of access to resources were rapidly becoming obvious (they went on to win the 2000 tournament). Australia meanwhile, under coach John Harmer, had been embarrassed by their performance in the 1993 tournament into becoming a thoroughly athletic and competitive side. They were still amateurs; they just happened to have developed the most professional attitude women's cricket had ever seen. Faced with the terrors of Fitzpatrick's bowling, with Belinda Clark, a captain who batted like a god and set the most ridiculously attacking fields, and with a whole bunch of sledging – let's face it, this was an Australian team in the 1990s – England crumbled.

They went home badly chastened by defeat, just as they'll be doing in a few days time. How did they respond? A few weeks later, at a meeting of the Women's Cricket Association, it was decided to accept the proposed merger with the ECB. That led to a whole load more money, time and staffing resources being poured into the England women's set-up, and to the basic acceptance that in order to become world-beaters again, a far more professional approch was required.

It took England a while to recover – they were knocked out of the next tournament without reaching the semi-finals. But they got there. In 2009 they raised the trophy again.

I think there are lessons there for this England side (aside from a caution against blaming poor umpiring for the loss). In 1997 they were surprised by Australia and New Zealand; here, they've been equally surprised by two different teams. Firstly Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan women have been a relevation at this tournament and when they did not fold instantly chasing England's total, England looked unsure how to react. They bowled poorly and did not take some important catches.

Secondly the West Indies. England beat them fairly easily in their group match and almost knocked them out of the tournament before the Super Six stage. But that's now irrelevant. Over the past few days the Windies have played exceptionally well, placing enough pressure on two of the world's top teams for defeat to be snatched from the jaws of victory in both cases.

England have been outshone by two teams who, seemingly while England's back has been turned, have raised their standards so much that they are now able to defeat the world's top-tier teams. Clearly this is thanks to the increased funding and support they have received in their home countries. And just as in 1997 the overwhelmingly professional attitude of Australia took England by surprise, so the quality of the cricket which Sri Lanka and the West Indies have played at this tournament has surprised them here.

England still have a team of world-class players. They were knocked out of the tournament, essentially, by a 1 wicket defeat to Sri Lanka and a 2-run defeat to Australia. But the key difference between their performances, and the performances of Sri Lanka and the West Indies, is that these latter two teams were able to perform under pressure, to up their game when it really mattered. England have performed at their best often when it didn't really matter – like today against New Zealand. That suggests to me a slight complacency on England's part – even if this was subconscious – when faced with the so-called minnow teams. In the new era we are entering, there will be far fewer games which can be won easily. The times when it doesn't really matter will be fewer and further between.

Complacency was a key problem back in 1997 and England learnt from that mistake. They need to do so again.

Predictably, I'll be cheering for the West Indies on Sunday. For the first time this tournament, it seems, what's “good for the game” and what my English instincts want actually coincide. I want Australia to lose because I'm English. I want the Windies to win because it will prove that there are no longer easily identifiable top and bottom tiers in women's cricket, and that the women's game can throw up just as many exciting and unpredictable results as the men's game.

Though ultimately, even if the West Indies lose, I guess we might have already won that particular battle.


  1. Aside from Australia looking like winning again, this has been a truly remarkable world cup. I'm glad someone was paying attention.

  2. There are some very good points here and not just for England but for Australia, New Zealand and India as well. They have all been surprised by "minnow" teams and will have to ensure they focus on every game to get wins. This is all excellent news for women's cricket and I just hope that this can be the springboard for some tri nations tournaments including WI/SL/SA/Pak and the top tier teams.

  3. Raf, I think it is very premature to consider this a watershed in competitiveness. The professionalism of some squads has certainly given lower ranked sides a boost - albeit a very inconsistent one in Sri Lanka's case. That inconsistency is a product of having few star players, something the West Indies also suffer from. When the top players succeed, they do well, when not, they lose badly. It is a classic problem in cricket nations with small player bases, and in the medium term will remain a problem.

    If anything, in the next ten years I'd expect Australia and England to be more dominant. Both have significantly increased their playing bases in the past decade (Australia's has more than doubled) and having a larger batch of talented youth come through into the semi-professional environment is going to tell.

    Conversely, most indications are that women get into cricket on the sub-continent despite the governing bodies, rather than because of them. It seems to me they'll be more likely joined by the next group below, than stay with England and Australia as they develop further. Which in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, in many ways it is better, although while the women's cricket media is derived almost wholly from England and Australia it won't be perceived as such.

  4. The word 'complacent' also came into my post-mortem.

    But the long and the short of it for me was that we didn't bat well enough - the only England players to came out of the tournament with their reputations intact were all bowlers: Shrubsole, Brunt and Colvin.

    My take here: