Eoin Morgan talks to the England team and support group

No fear: Eoin Morgan instilled a sense of adventurousness in his England side

Shaun Botterill / © Getty Images


England became a white-ball force after 2015. Are they still on the cutting edge?

Eoin Morgan's revolution culminated in a World Cup title in 2019. What's next?

Matt Roller  |  

In 2015, England were eliminated in the group stages of the World Cup, having lost all four of their games against Test-playing nations. Four years later, they were world champions, having risen to No. 1 in the ICC's ODI rankings and overhauled attitudes to white-ball cricket in England and Wales.

The side that lifted the trophy at Lord's in 2019 has never played together since, but Ben Stokes' return from a brief ODI retirement signalled the core of England's best-ever 50-over side getting back together for a shot at defending their crown. So how did they do it in 2019 - and can they go back-to-back in India?

How England did it

Long-term thinking
World Cups tended to be England's final engagement of long winters overseas, and it showed: in 2003, 2007 and 2011, they were exhausted after long Ashes tours when they arrived in South Africa, the Caribbean and India respectively.

By 2015, the ECB and CA had adjusted the Ashes schedule to avoid another clash - but England's plans were still thrown off at the last moment. Alastair Cook was sacked as captain at short notice, after a 5-2 defeat in Sri Lanka; James Taylor, who had impressed at No. 3, was demoted to No. 6 to accommodate the returning Gary Ballance; after finding success with the new ball, Chris Woakes became a change bowler.

When Andrew Strauss became England's managing director in May 2015, he was determined that England would not make the same mistakes again. Strauss recognised that one-day cricket had secondary status to Tests in England and Wales, but believed that owed as much to an outdated approach and poor results as to any ingrained preference among supporters.

Buttler and Stokes were team-mates at Rajasthan Royals in the IPL - which provided them with experience of Indian conditions that will stand them, and England, in good stead come the World Cup

Buttler and Stokes were team-mates at Rajasthan Royals in the IPL - which provided them with experience of Indian conditions that will stand them, and England, in good stead come the World Cup © BCCI

He encouraged separation between the one-day and Test teams, and after sacking Peter Moores, appointed a coach - Trevor Bayliss - predominantly for his white-ball expertise. Eoin Morgan was retained as captain and selection was geared towards 2019. "We suddenly stopped selecting for the next series and started selecting for the World Cup in four years' time," Nathan Leamon, England's analyst, said. "They were asking, 'Is this player still going to be there? Does he play the way we want to play?' If not, they were nowhere near the squad."

Strauss commissioned research from Leamon that determined predictive factors for World Cup success: the three keys were a winning record, batting strength (much more so than bowling), and experience. "There's about 90-95 one-dayers before the next World Cup," Morgan said. "The more games we can get into our youngsters, the more experience, the more performances they can put in, [the better]."

Risk and reward
By 2015, England were miles behind the world in their approach to white-ball batting. At a World Cup where the champions, Australia, scored at 6.82 runs per over, England went at 5.48. Across the tournament, only Scotland and the UAE hit fewer sixes than England's 18; Chris Gayle hit 26 on his own.

Before England's first game of the new ODI cycle, Morgan brought his young team together at Edgbaston and underlined that he wanted them to play in the attacking style that they did for their counties. Their new sense of adventure was immediately vindicated: England racked up their first-ever 400-plus total thanks to Joe Root and Jos Buttler's hundreds, and scored at 7.68 runs per over across a five-match series against New Zealand that they won 3-2.

Players were emboldened by continuity in selection. Alex Hales and Jason Roy had quiet 2015 summers but were told before the New Zealand series that they would be backed for the whole year, so long as they continued to attack; both hit maiden ODI hundreds against Pakistan in the UAE that winter.

And Morgan ensured that his batters would not be criticised for getting out while attacking. He set the tone himself, scoring at a strike rate of 110 across the 2015 home summer and making a point of falling on the side of over-aggression rather than caution. In the fifth ODI against New Zealand, he was caught at deep midwicket while slog-sweeping his very first ball.

Hit the lights: Moeen Ali says he was initially reprimanded for playing aggressive shots and later given free rein to play shots of just that kind

Hit the lights: Moeen Ali says he was initially reprimanded for playing aggressive shots and later given free rein to play shots of just that kind Marco Longrari / © AFP/Getty Images

It was a marked departure from the previous regime. In the 2015 World Cup, Moeen Ali was caught at mid-off to leave England 62 for 1 after 9.2 overs against Sri Lanka, and received "an earful" when he returned to the dressing room; England had already surpassed the score that their innings template outlined for the powerplay - 50 for 0 - and the management felt he had taken a needless risk.

Moeen later recalled a similar dismissal, when he was caught in the deep, in the early days of the new era: "I said, 'I should have kept knocking it around.' He [Morgan] was like, 'Nah. Next time, hit it out of the park.' Stuff like that was big for players." In training, England brought back range-hitting; Morgan told his players to "aim for the lights".

England made a point of picking a team that batted deep, with Adil Rashid - who scored a priceless 69 in the first ODI of that New Zealand series - often carded as low as No. 10 or No. 11, and bowlers like David Willey, Liam Plunkett, Chris Jordan and Woakes all able to contribute from down the order. When England lost clumps of wickets, they were often bailed out by a strong lower order; and when they didn't, their batters felt increasingly comfortable taking risks and playing attacking shots - meaning that their bowlers were contributing to their batting without even having to face a ball.

Embracing diversity
Before their first selection meeting, Bayliss emphasised the value of bowling variety, telling his assistant, Paul Farbrace, who deputised for the New Zealand series, that he wanted someone who could turn the ball both ways, a left-armer and a high-pace fast bowler.

Rashid was brought in from the cold, six years after his last ODI, and most importantly, was trusted by Morgan, who recognised his value. England had never previously given a legspinner a sustained run of games in white-ball cricket. Between the 2015 and 2019 World Cups, no one in the world played as many ODIs as Rashid.

Previously, England's 50-over spinners were picked for their defensive qualities; Rashid was encouraged to attack. "We used to take the pressure off him by saying we didn't care how many runs he went for," Farbrace explained. "It was all about how many wickets he took." Rashid took plenty, quickly becoming England's most prolific ODI spinner.

England's seam attack also became less predictable. James Anderson and Stuart Broad were dropped after the World Cup (Broad briefly returned on a tour to South Africa) and everyone benefited: they were fresher for Test cricket and prolonged their careers, while England's white-ball team introduced fresh players with different skill sets.

Mark Wood offered out-and-out pace, Plunkett became a master of the middle overs, bowling cross-seam and cutters, while Willey, a left-armer who swung the new ball, played the majority of the four-year cycle before he was replaced by Jofra Archer - a genuine fast bowler - on the eve of the World Cup.

Between the 2011 and 2015 World Cups, left-arm seamers, wristspinners and 90mph bowlers sent down 4% of the balls England bowled in ODIs; between the 2015 and 2019 World Cups, that jumped to 30%. By extension, that made Woakes' traditional skills more effective.

England embraced diversity off the pitch, too. Their squad contained players born in a number of different countries and from a wide spread of backgrounds. "It felt like there was a really strong brotherhood - like, 'These are my guys,'" Moeen said. "We knew we were on to something special. It didn't matter if you were new to the team, if you were black, white, brown; young or old."

England's director of cricket, Andrew Strauss, saw that ODIs were taking a back seat among the priorities of English cricket, and went about righting that

England's director of cricket, Andrew Strauss, saw that ODIs were taking a back seat among the priorities of English cricket, and went about righting that Charlie Crowhurst / © ECB/Getty Images

After the 2019 World Cup final, Morgan said: "I spoke to Adil - he said Allah was definitely with us. I said we had the rub of the green. It actually epitomises our team: it has quite diverse backgrounds and cultures."

Aggressive and smart
As England progressed, their style evolved. Bayliss called for them to be "aggressive and smart" and it took them some time to find the balance between the two. Morgan was more frustrated when they went into their shells - like at Cardiff in the 2017 Champions Trophy semi-final - than when they were bowled out cheaply going too hard.

Crucially, they had adaptable players. Root's record at No. 3 was among the best in the world. He played low-risk shots through the middle overs, cruising along with a strike rate in the mid-80s, while Morgan, Buttler and Stokes all gained experience of different match situations at the IPL. Having largely thrived on flat home pitches between 2015 and 2018, they encountered trickier conditions at the World Cup, when the ICC played a role in pitch preparation. After shock early defeats to Pakistan and Sri Lanka, then another loss to Australia at Lord's, they could not afford another slip-up.

In a team meeting in Birmingham, the day before they played India, Stokes opened up about his fear of failure, prompting similar responses from his team-mates. They resolved that if they were to lose, they would rather do so while staying true to the method and values that had brought them to that point.

They hit 337 against India on a flat track at Edgbaston, then thrashed New Zealand by 119 runs at Chester-le-Street to set up a semi-final against Australia. It was their perfect game, bowling their rivals out for 223 before strutting into the final with 17.5 overs to spare and eight wickets in hand.

David Willey, who has been around in ODIs since the end of the 2015 World Cup, did not play the 2019 edition, but now finds himself among the most experienced of England's bowlers

David Willey, who has been around in ODIs since the end of the 2015 World Cup, did not play the 2019 edition, but now finds himself among the most experienced of England's bowlers Alex Davidson / © Getty Images

The final required them to dig deep, with Stokes and Buttler's 110-run stand perfectly encapsulating Bayliss' "aggressive and smart" mantra. Their four-year journey from no-hopers to world champions came down to the barest of margins, and highlighted another intangible that few trophies are won without: a slice of good fortune.

Can England do it again?

Playing second fiddle
Ever since that day at Lord's four years ago, 50-over cricket has slipped right down the list of English cricket's priorities. In white-ball cricket, attention turned to the back-to-back T20 World Cups, and since Rob Key's appointment as managing director last year, Test cricket has been the No. 1 focus. Domestically, the 50-over competition has been hollowed out: for the last three years, it has been played concurrently with the Hundred and therefore without the overwhelming majority of the country's best white-ball cricketers.

Between the 2015 and 2019 World Cups, England played 88 ODIs; since the 2019 final, they have played just 36, with seven more scheduled in September against New Zealand and Ireland. The pattern has been similar worldwide, with a combination of the pandemic and the growth of franchise leagues diminishing the status of ODI series.

Even when England have played, they have rarely - if ever - been at full strength. "Look at how those bilateral series were played between 2015 and 2019: we played our strongest team, and so did everyone else," Root told me earlier this year, while at the IPL with Rajasthan Royals. "It's been very different since 2019, for a number of reasons. The 50-over game has suffered the most - that has been the format where you haven't consistently got the best teams being put out. I don't think it's just us in that boat."

There will be a handful of changes to the squad between World Cups: Morgan and Plunkett have retired from all cricket, Tom Curran, Liam Dawson and James Vince have slipped down the pecking order, and the tournament is likely to come too soon for Archer - though he may travel as a reserve.

Dawid Malan and Willey, two experienced players, have forced their way into contention through the weight of runs and wickets during this cycle, while Liam Livingstone, Sam Curran, Reece Topley and Gus Atkinson have all been included in the provisional squad. Among them, only Willey has extensive ODI experience; even Livingstone, a mainstay of the white-ball set-up for three years, has played only 12.

Adil Rashid's second coming as an ODI leggie, and his batting ability, have been a bonus for England

Adil Rashid's second coming as an ODI leggie, and his batting ability, have been a bonus for England © Associated Press

But none of them will have any doubts about how they will be expected to play, since England's change in style has been just as notable as the change in their results. When their entire ODI squad was forced to self-isolate two years ago after a Covid outbreak, they assembled a new squad at the last minute - who promptly whitewashed Pakistan 3-0.

Watching on from his sofa, Morgan was delighted to see concrete evidence of England's depth, culminating in a successful chase of 332 in the final game, at Edgbaston. "The method our team plays is starting to resonate around the country," he said. "Considering where we were in 2015, that's a huge achievement. It's also a tribute to anybody who was in our World Cup group because the way they play has had such an impact."

Indian experience
England's squad for the 2015 World Cup contained two players with IPL experience - Morgan and Ravi Bopara, who only played in that World Cup when they were already eliminated. This year, 17 England players had IPL contracts at some stage, with several playing senior roles at their franchises; out of their provisional 15-man squad, only Atkinson has never played at the IPL.

Matthew Mott, appointed England's white-ball coach last year, believes that exposure is crucial: "It's a melting pot of all the best players in the world - an experience you can't buy," he told me earlier this year. He cited, as an example of the benefits, Moeen's insistence that England should send India in if they won the toss in last year's T20 World Cup semi-final.

"He was like, 'We need them not to chase a score; we need them to have to set a total,'" Mott recalled. India duly started slowly, and posted a total that proved to be a long way below par. "Those are things you might not pick up unless you're around those environments. It's gold for him to be in our dressing room having been there."

A tangible effect of exposure to the IPL has been the collective improvement against spin in one-day cricket. At the 2015 World Cup, England scored at a shade over five runs per over against spin, the second-slowest of any Test-playing nation; in 2019, the figure was close to seven - the quickest of any team, by a distance.

Root, whose stint with Rajasthan this year was his first gig in the IPL, believes that England's access to the tournament will prove even more important ahead of a World Cup in India. "Last time, we were preparing for a World Cup in our own conditions," he said. "Out here [in India], it will obviously require slightly different skill sets, and it might mean managing different games slightly differently to how we would do it back home."

When England arrive in Ahmedabad for the World Cup opener against New Zealand on October 5, it will be a familiar venue for most of their players and they will not be overwhelmed by the scale of the crowd. "Having had so much experience as a team playing in the IPL, I don't think that's as much of a factor any more," Buttler said after England's victory in front an Indian-majority crowd in that T20 World Cup semi-final in Adelaide last year.

Witness the fitness
England's bowlers - across formats - have been plagued by injuries over the last three years, quite possibly as a consequence of the pandemic and their swift return to action later that summer. Heading into this World Cup, there are a number of doubts over the fitness of their fast bowlers, most crucially Archer.

In 2019, it was a significant achievement that Archer, Rashid and Woakes played all 11 games despite various injuries and niggles, while Wood got through ten out of 11 and eventually strained his side while completing his last over in the final. "Me and Woakesy look at pictures from the World Cup and we both look so skinny," Wood recalled. "I'm thin anyway, but the World Cup took so much out of us."

This year, England's schedule is just as busy, and this time they will play in away conditions. It would be a minor miracle if the players make it through the tournament without missing games through injuries; having relied predominantly on 12 players four years ago, England will view this World Cup as a squad game.

Counting the caps
England have selected one of the oldest World Cup squads in recent memory: Livingstone is their youngest batter, having turned 30 earlier this year, and is the fourth-youngest member of the squad. They have left out a number of young talents - most notably, Harry Brook - in favour of their old stagers.

Coach Trevor Bayliss was brought in specifically to address England's ODI requirements, and he championed a brand of aggressive and smart cricket that took them to the World Cup title

Coach Trevor Bayliss was brought in specifically to address England's ODI requirements, and he championed a brand of aggressive and smart cricket that took them to the World Cup title © Getty Images

There are parallels with Australia's World Cup-winning team of 2007, another side that leaned towards experience over youth: 35-year-old Matthew Hayden and 37-year-old Glenn McGrath finished the tournament as the leading run-scorer and wicket-taker respectively. Their XI in the final had an average age of over 31; England's will likely be above 32 in November.

"I feel we become very obsessed with age in England and we are always looking for the next thing," Buttler told the Times last month, explaining the retention of Roy ahead of Brook. "If people are still performing, age is irrelevant. It's about performance, and that's the route we've gone down. I feel very comfortable with that."

It is an unashamedly short-term view, and justifiably so. England might have opted to blood a younger group of players over the last four years but when it comes to World Cups, there is no point focusing on anything beyond the here and now. By 2027 this team will have fragmented; for England's golden generation of one-day cricketers, this represents the band coming back together for one last dance.

The nature of the World Cup's current format is that the best four teams are highly likely to reach the semi-finals; whether England can defend their title or not, there is a minimum expectation built in that they should make it out of the group. In itself, that demonstrates the revolution that has taken place in England's white-ball cricket. Between 1996 and 2015, they didn't reach a single World Cup semi-final. Now, a failure to do so would be unthinkable.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98
A number of quotations in this article are taken from the book White Hot: The Inside Story of England Cricket's Double World Champions by Tim Wigmore and Matt Roller