In Wisden Cricket Monthly’s latest edition, their front cover splash reads: ‘Last Dance: England’s Old Guard on Their Final World Cup Mission.’ The current holders are relying on loyalty to those who have delivered before. It’s thirtysomethings putting away (boundary) shots at the last chance saloon.
“Loyalty is a continuous phenomenon. You don’t score points for past action,” wrote the British author Natasha Pulley. That’s certainly true in the ejection from the final 15 of Jason Roy, one of the most potent opening weapons of the 2019 team. Roy didn’t play a game in the recent series against New Zealand because of a recurring back spasm and the selectors have plumped for young gun Harry Brook. Roy is “gutted” and considering his England future. He’s been shot in the front.
At least Brook brings the average age of the squad down a bit. Maybe England feel, like Novak Djokovic, that 36 is the new 26. The squad does reek a little of halcyon days. Selection oddities no longer exist in England’s professional ODI circles after the nadir of the 2015 tournament, but there was certainly an admittance that years might be wearying the squad a little.
“I wouldn’t call it ‘Dad’s Army’ but we’re an ageing group,” skipper Jos Buttler said. We’ve got a lot of experience in the format, so it won’t take quite as long to get back to feeling completely at home in 50-over cricket.
Perhaps a rest home might be something to consider after the medics have assessed the aches and pains that have afflicted almost half the squad. Roy has been KO’d while opening partner Jonny Bairstow missed the first match against New Zealand with a shoulder strain. Bairstow is still finding his way back from a freakish golf injury that jeopardised his career.
Adil Rashid, 35, played one match against the Kiwis, went off for cramp and complained of a tight calf. Mark Wood, 33, has had a sore heel since the end of the Ashes and David Willey, 33, missed most of the IPL with a fractured toe and adductor strain. Reece Topley, a mere 29, is a walking hazard, having dislocated his shoulder in his first match at the IPL and turned his ankle just before the World T20.
Ben Stokes has his own set of retirement rules, much to the chagrin of Tim Paine. Like Steve Waugh, he can play cricket on one leg. The all-rounder is now a one-trick pony without his bowling, but he can cover for batters out of form in one gigantic innings. The surgery on the chronic knee will have to wait until after the latest mission. No one is complaining about Stokes’s inclusion apart from a former Australian captain who bore the brunt of his Ashes assault four years ago.
England have a very talented squad (the selectors keep telling us) but it is infected with the constant niggles and slight signs of driftwood that age tends to bring. There’s a feeling that the golden generation of 2019 delivered on its promise, albeit by the barest of margins. The 2023 group might be pushing the hamstrings too far. There is also the question of form and peaking at the right time.
Joe Root makes batting look easy, whether he stays for a brief cameo or purrs along to another 50 or a 100. Current viewings report that he has no timing or feel. It is a peculiar thing to witness and the batsman has asked to be included for the series against Ireland, although the weather may hamper any real batting time at the crease.
No longer do England roam the 50-over format like a T-Rex. They are more velociraptor these days, hunting in packs occasionally, getting a good bite in, but being thrown around by other beasts in the forest. The Three Lions have only won two of the last six bilateral series. They don’t carry the same aura of confidence, which was probably reflected in the original announcement of the squad of 15.
India is a tough gig to win any series, especially over a seven-week time span including warm-up matches. They have only one official travelling reserve, Jofra Archer, another nod to the past. Archer has hardly crossed the white lines of an international or domestic pitch over the last two-and-a-half years. He’s there on an extended fitness session. The physios could be on overtime.
The 2023 squad doesn’t have the zing of fresh new blood apart from that roundabout call-up for Brook. The old heads can still relight the fire, but for how much longer? The world is about to find out.