As Ben Stokes dragged himself back to the dressing-room – muttering dark thoughts, shaking his head – it felt not so much like the end of England’s World Cup as the end of an entire era.
Stokes had just pulled Lahiru Kumara to deep midwicket, having made a painstaking 43 from 73 balls in an England innings eventually put out of its misery for 156 – a total which Sri Lanka brushed aside for the loss of two wickets. The whole match lasted 59 overs.
This was a result which managed to be both England’s worst nightmare and fully in keeping with the shambolic nature of their title defence. And it raises serious questions about the ability of head coach Matthew Mott and captain Jos Buttler to get the most out of a talented but ageing bunch of cricketers.
Never before has an ODI team been stocked purely by 30-somethings, as England were last night. The end of a few 50-over careers has just been hastened. Even last year’s T20 triumph in Australia feels an age ago.
Managing director Rob Key said on Tuesday that England needed time to ‘let the dust settle’. But that was before their latest horror show. As they collapsed against a fired-up Sri Lankan team led by the former England coach Chris Silverwood, the dust appeared to be settling at an alarming rate.
England suffered yet another dismal defeat in the Cricket World Cup to Sri Lanka today
Some of those multi-year central contracts look less clever now. In fact, the only England player to hit a six in this game or take a wicket was David Willey – the one member of the World Cup squad to be left out of the new deals.
Ever since England lost to Afghanistan in Delhi, the talk has been about reconnecting with the white-ball giants who still – at least for a few more weeks – have both World Cups in their cabinet.
Mott himself, Buttler, Stokes, Joe Root, Moeen Ali – they have all taken turns delivering a message that has been repeated so often it has lost all meaning and any relation to reality.
Because let’s be honest, England’s entire World Cup strategy can be boiled down to an expression of hope: it’ll be alright on the night. It turns out to be no sort of basis for a winning games of cricket.
They played 42 ODIs between the end of the last World Cup and this one, having played 88 between the disaster of 2015 and the triumph of 2019. They rarely picked their best XI, pushing the 50-over format into third place in the pecking-order behind Tests and T20 – fourth place, if you count the Hundred.
And they made a hash of their selection process, leaving the players on tenterhooks when it emerged the World Cup 15 was not as final as they had been told. Even here in India, picking the team has felt more like a game of pin the tail on the donkey.
The un-retirement of Stokes was reasonable enough, vindicated by his England-record 182 off 124 balls against New Zealand at The Oval. But it also said something about the last-minute nature of the planning. Then, of course, he injured his hip.
Buttler had little choice on winning the toss but to bat, having been badly stung by fielding against Afghanistan and South Africa. And, briefly, Dawid Malan batted as if he had listened to the pleas for aggression, smashing six fours as England moved to 45 without loss in the seventh over.
But when he provided the returning veteran Angelo Mathews with his first ODI wicket for three and a half years, England reverted to the timidity that has typified their campaign.
Root was run out for three after setting off for a non-existent single, and has now made 16 off 33 balls in three innings since beginning with a pair of half-centuries. Bairstow played an uncharacteristic smear to mid-on, and Buttler edged a booming drive. Stokes, meanwhile, could barely get it off the square.
Liam Livingstone, lucky to be recalled, played round a full one from Kumara, and has now made 31 runs in four innings. Moeen, who had urged England to go down swinging, cut to backward point.
The fiasco was summed up when Adil Rashid dawdled out of his crease at the non-striker’s end as wicketkeeper Kusal Mendis quick-wittedly threw down the stumps. For the first time ever, England had been bowled out for below 200 in successive World Cup games.
Willey raised a scintilla of hope with two early wickets, only for Pathum Nissanka and Sadeera Samarawickrama to waltz to victory.
Four defeats equals England’s worst haul at a World Cup, and their next opponents – in Lucknow on Sunday – are India. The fast-improving Australians also lie in wait. Things could get worse before they fly home on next month.
Mathematically, England have not yet been eliminated. By any other measure, they look down and out.