In knockout team sport, not always does the better team or the ideal way of playing prevail. Thirty years ago, England were the futuristic ODI side with 11 first-class centurions in their playing XI without sacrificing the quality of the bowling, they were more consistent too, but they were undone by two pieces of genius in the final. At the same venue against a team riding a similar emotional wave and with genius bowlers in its arsenal in 2022, England, the side with the better method, prevailed.
England’s comprehensive wins against two Asian sides in the two knockout matches were a vindication of the template of T20 cricket. ‘Template’ is a term cricketers are not a fan of. It is understandable because they adapt to different conditions and match situations every day. Template makes them sound like robots, but there is a method or structure or philosophy to every team, and England’s is truest to T20 cricket.
Once we have the ideal resources available in terms of efficient hitters – perhaps a decade or more down the line – an ideal T20 XI will look a little like this: hitters through the line-up, one batter who can arrest a collapse, batters who can bowl both spin and pace, a legspinner or a mystery spinner, and some high pace. In other words, a line-up similar to the ones England have been playing, and did in this World Cup.
To T20 “purists” – or hipsters, depending on your outlook – this result is confirmation that the shorter the format gets the less say the bowling has. That if batting makes the more significant impact on the results, it is better to stack your side with players likely to get you that advantage.
In the final, Naseem Shah bowled a beautiful spell, inducing 16 false responses – ten in 12 balls at one point – but got no wicket and went at a rate higher than the scoring rate in the match. A good ball or spell in T20 doesn’t draw the same amount of respect or correlation with the results as it does in longer formats. Adil Rashid is rightly recognised as one of the best bowlers in this tournament but he has only four wickets to show for it. This World Cup is being celebrated for the bowling quality and helpful pitches, but runs have been scored at a faster rate in this tournament than they were in last year’s edition in the UAE.
By no stretch was England’s bowling attack sexy, to borrow the word that Indian coach Rahul Dravid almost used to describe Pakistan’s bowling, but it didn’t need to be. Jos Buttler said after the win that their bowling needed to improve coming into the tournament. What their bowling needed to do was to find a way to be efficient, which they certainly did.
In a tournament supposed to be all about powerplay wickets, England bowlers averaged the worst in that period. Sam Curran, the Player of the Tournament for his 13 wickets, picked up nine of them at the death. It was all about denial without being defensive. In Adelaide, they bowled full to discourage hits to the short square boundaries, in Melbourne they went short to use the big square ones.
None of their bowlers went searching for wickets because they knew if they denied the batters for long enough, the wickets would come. Even if they don’t, you need to deny them only for 20 overs. Rashid said he only goes searching for wickets in T20 when he has a small total to defend or not enough support. They had enough depth and efficiency in the bowling to be able to force mistakes without having to buy them. They also had the batting that was equipped to and believed in going one run better.
Perhaps the biggest window into how England play T20 was provided just before the semi-final against India. While all other teams talked about assessing quickly what a par total was, Buttler said he didn’t believe in the concept of par totals. “It’s about the winning score,” Buttler said.
England don’t blindly hit out, but whenever they are in a situation where being conservative and aggressive has equal merits, they take the aggressive route. That is because they equip themselves with batters who can do that. When Dawid Malan got injured, they didn’t go around looking for another anchor but brought in Phil Salt, whose strike rate in T20 cricket is above 150.
England used Moeen Ali down the order to have an experienced batter should it get tight. Ben Stokes was used as the batter who could arrest collapses even though his ideal position might be inside the powerplay. Other than that, Buttler and Alex Hales didn’t believe in preserving wickets or setting up platforms. You go, go, go, and it will have to be a really unlucky day for it to not come off if enough batters just go for it.
It shows in their selections, which trickles down to domestic cricket. Their T20 sides value speed over consistency, in other words, T20 specialists. Once you see that kind of player getting the backing in national sides, domestic sides follow, and the message to those learning cricket is that if they want to play T20 cricket for England, they need to bat like Buttler, Jonny Bairstow, Hales and Liam Livingstone.
It also involves being okay with the odd collapse that doesn’t give their bowlers any hope. However, the frequency of those collapses tends to come down once the batters have the backing. They try to hit the ceiling for those conditions. Even in the final, with almost all of the 80,000 in attendance getting behind the Pakistan attack, they didn’t look to absorb the pressure. They kept hitting, got ahead of the asking rate, and only Stokes played the anchor role.
The day England lost to Bangladesh in Adelaide in 2015 and were knocked out of that 50-over World Cup, they drew a line in the sand. Since then, this method has taken them to the knockout stages of all five white-ball ICC events. They have won two, been runners-up once, and ended as losing semi-finalists twice. This is remarkable consistency in this era of professionalism and competitive teams. They have won this one without two of their first-choice bowlers in Jofra Archer and Mark Wood, and without Bairstow. The personnel have changed, but the philosophy and results haven’t.
Not only are these results building a legacy, but it is also satisfying to see this method being rewarded through results. It might lead some of the other teams to move into the T20 era.