Sunday, June 23, 2024

England’s T20 World Cup predicament goes far beyond their own failings

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They were showing India v Pakistan in the bar at Bridgetown airport on Sunday, this World Cup having been pleasingly visible in the Caribbean. But as England supporters watched that nail-biter unfold over a cold bottle of Banks before the flight to Antigua, Scotland were already in the land of sea and sun, gleefully lining up a week at the last-chance saloon for the Auld Enemy.

Coming 24 hours after England were out-thought and outplayed by Australia at Kensington Oval, and staged in parallel to Pakistan’s big flop in the Big Apple, that seven-wicket victory against Oman at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium has put Richie Berrington’s side on the cusp of swiping their boarding passes to the Super Eights themselves. Knocking off a target of 151 with 41 balls to spare, super-charging their net run-rate in the process, they could scarcely have done more.

Sitting top of Group B on five points and with a net run-rate of +2.16, Scotland have one remaining game, against Australia in St Lucia on Saturday night. Between now and then, Jos Buttler’s side, now with one point after the opening washout last week, must beat both Oman and Namibia to draw level, do so handsomely enough to correct their NRR of –1.8, and hope Australia beat the Scots by a margin that drops them to third.

The issue for England here (beyond their own shortcomings) is that Scotland, while clearly looking to win and make all this irrelevant, will also know how much they can afford to lose by as the match unfolds. And Australia, assuming they beat Namibia on Tuesday and secure their Super Eight berth with a game to spare, may feel no obligation to secure a quick kill. Andrew McDonald, though not wishing to get ahead of himself with a game to come first, has also admitted that squad players may get a go if his team have qualified.

None of which is to suggest Australia would deliberately lose – they don’t do defeats by associate nations in World Cups – but with NRR not carried over into the Super Eights and the seedings dictating which group they will enter regardless of final standing, it would still be a game with nothing riding on it from their perspective. Winning in a manner that stuffs their oldest rivals and rules out a possible rematch in the knockouts? Like the local rum punch, even on a subliminal level, it could be tempting.

“We’re not really focused on where England are at,” McDonald said when asked on Monday whether such thoughts would enter Australian minds against Scotland. “We’re past them and we will do what’s important to us within those games. We haven’t got the option of talking about that at the moment.

Steve Waugh’s Australia triumphed at the 1999 Cricket World Cup following a controversy that the Guardian’s Matthew England called ‘dreadful and shameful’. Photograph: Max Nash/AP

“England have clearly got their own work to do in their next couple of games. We were in a similar situation in the last T20 World Cup where we had to chase net run-rate [and missed out on the semi-finals] and it’s always difficult, being dependent on other results. But that’s for them to work through.”

A not dissimilar scenario to the one painted above unfolded at the 50-over World Cup in 1999, when, amid cat-calls from the Old Trafford crowd, Steve Waugh’s Australia slammed on the brakes during a chase of just 111 against West Indies. The reason? To damage New Zealand’s chances of reaching the Super Six. Back then – and where things differ – results between teams in the group stage carried through, meaning that, having already lost against New Zealand, it served Australia better to throw West Indies’ a NRR lifeline while still beating them.

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“I don’t know about it being moral, but it was in the rules,” Waugh insisted afterwards, a reminder from history that the debate about the letter of the law v the Spirit of Cricket is nothing new. There was no social media in those days – oh for a spin in a DeLorean to travel back and keep it that way – but in these pages, Matthew Engel called it “a dreadful and shameful game of cricket”. Football, he wrote, had long since realised its final World Cup group matches should be played simultaneously.

Whether a legitimate tactic as per the regulations or an affront to common decency – and New Zealand’s Stephen Fleming said he probably would have done the same as Waugh – it did not have the desired effect. Instead, New Zealand filleted Scotland for 121 in Edinburgh the following day, setting themselves 21.2 overs to pip West Indies on NRR and cruising home with 21 balls to spare.

Popping back in the DeLorean and returning to the present, there are clearly still a good few variables before such a scenario comes to pass. Given the way England have started their tournament – and a propensity to make life difficult for themselves against the supposedly lesser sides, in contrast to Australia – the supporters who booked flights for the Super Eights may have to switch allegiance north of the border.

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