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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Malik Ouzia

Cricket World Cup: England in serious trouble but Afghanistan the remarkable tale

When this tournament is over and this match is writ prominently in the annals of Cricket World Cup history, as it was destined to be the moment Rashid Khan bowled Mark Wood to confirm the most famous victory of Afghanistan’s remarkable cricketing tale, England’s part in the piece will be secondary.

That Chris Woakes and Sam Curran combined to leak 87 runs in just eight wicketless overs will get barely a mention compared to the six wickets Khan shared with Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Afghanistan’s other outstanding spinner.

No ink will be wasted on Jonny Bairstow’s grievance at a marginal lbw decision, nor the manner in which most of England’s line-up shrank from the moment the opener fell to the seventh ball of the chase, when there is so much to tell of 21-year-old Rahmanullah Gurbaz and his coming of age innings of 80 from just 57 balls.

And it will seem an irrelevance to even note that the contest started with Jos Buttler’s blunder in electing to field, when it ended with such an underdog triumph, only Afghanistan’s second in World Cups.

Here and now, though, England have no time for sugar-coated retellings. Make no mistake about it, the defending champions are in serious trouble, after a 69-run defeat that hardly did justice to the manner in which they were outplayed made it two losses in an opening run of fixtures that, on paper, looked a fairly kind slate.

“Before the tournament starts you have a different idea of how the first three games would pan out,” Buttler conceded, and given his side had beaten New Zealand comfortably in a tune-up series before flying to India, they might have expected at this stage to be three out of three.

Instead, with two-thirds of the group stage to go, already England are playing the permutation game. Six wins will likely be the benchmark for a guaranteed a semi-final place, though five with a decent net-run-rate may just about do. To get to even the lower end of that threshold now, the holders will have to beat at least two of India, Pakistan, Australia and South Africa and that is assuming they take care of Sri Lanka and the Dutch which, on Sunday’s showing, is no given.

There are myriad theories, both macro and micro, for England’s underperformance thus far, but to hone in on these three matches alone, the twin crux of their struggle lies in a batting line-up playing without the swagger that made it the world’s best, and a bowling attack simply not quite good enough.

England were not long ago a side that batted with aggression almost to a fault, but against Afghanistan looked tentative and allowed the spinners, in particular, to dictate terms.

Harry Brook, the exception in his 66 from 61 balls, hit the chase’s only six in the 31st over. Before then, no one else had even tried.

Defending champions England are in serious trouble at the Cricket World Cup (AP)

One can acknowledge the importance of Jason Roy in setting the tone for this England at its peak without thinking that the opener, in his current guide, would be doing so in the same vein now had he not been axed on the eve of the tournament. Ben Stokes might, though, albeit from lower down the order, and will surely have to come into the XI against South Africa on Saturday now, whether fully fit or not.

Among England’s bowlers, however, there is no obvious quick fix. Coming into the tournament, the suspicion was that the seam cupboard was rather less well-stocked than in 2019 and, at present, it is looking even barer than first feared, with the usually reliable Woakes woefully out of rhythm and Curran struggling to impact 50-over innings in the way he has T20s.

Bar a dramatic return to fitness for Jofra Archer late in the tournament (assuming England are even still in it by that stage), Buttler must find a way to get by with what he has.

There may well be a growing temptation to throw Gus Atkinson in at the deep end in the hope the novice can provide a spark.

With his dodgy knee and now a niggling hip, too, even Stokes cannot help England there.

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