With the 2019 World Cup final between New Zealand and England imminent, English fans are daring to dream. Yet if there is one thing that will keep them grounded, it is the side’s disappointing history in the competition. Haunted by a succession of batting collapses, wayward bowling and dropped catches, England remain trophyless not only in the World Cup, but in all international 50-over competitions. Whether thanks to untimely group-stage exits or choking mid-way through the final, that much-needed victory has always eluded them. This article charts some of the most high-profile World Cup disappointments the English have suffered, serving as a reminder that they cannot take anything for granted.
As with this year’s tournament, the first three editions of the World Cup were held in England, and the hosts appeared to make the most of their home advantage right from the outset of the inaugural event. In the competition’s very first game, they trounced India by 202 runs in a match that went from the sublime to the ridiculous. Indian batsman Sunil Gavaskar responded to England’s impressive total of 334 for 4, led by a century from Dennis Amiss, with a bizarre innings of 36 not out from 174 balls, making no attempt to chase the target much to the outrage of the match’s spectators. After this strange victory, England went on to qualify for the semi-finals with two more comfortable victories against New Zealand and East Africa, with Amiss, Keith Fletcher and John Snow on fine form, giving them a strong record of 3 victories from 3 matches.
Awaiting England in the semi-finals were their old enemy, the Australians. They were a talented side with a particularly dangerous bowling attack containing Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee, but it was a lesser-known bowler who turned out to be the one England should have feared. After England were put in to bat, left-armer Gary Gilmour tore into the England batting order, taking the first 6 wickets to fall to reduce England to 36 for 6. Only the most modest of fightbacks from Amiss and Geoff Arnold, the only batsmen to reach double figures, followed as England were bundled out for just 93. The match, though, was not over quite yet. In what were clearly favourable bowling conditions, England made almost identical early inroads to leave Australia reeling at 39 for 6. Gilmour, though, was the hero once again, as his 28 not out was enough to see his side to a tense victory and a place in the final, giving England their first taste of World Cup defeat.
As with 4 years previously, England’s 1979 World Cup effort started in the best possible fashion for the hosts. They began the tournament with a satisfying victory over Australia, taking some revenge for their semi-final defeat at the last tournament. England’s performance was spearheaded by an electric effort in the field as they effected 4 run-outs while limiting Australia to 159 for 9, a total they chased down comfortably thanks to a composed half-century from Graeme Gooch. They followed this win with a comprehensive victory over a sorry Canada side who were bowled out for just 45, before seeing off Pakistan by just 14 runs as Mike Hendrick starred with 4 wickets. Once again, England found themselves in the semi-final, this time against a New Zealand side containing the great Richard Hadlee. England, put in to bat first, overcame an early wobble thanks to fifties from Mike Brearley and Gooch, guiding them to the respectable total of 221 for 8. In response, despite a spirited innings of 69 from John Wright, New Zealand fell just 9 runs short of England’s total, losing regular wickets with Hendrick again the pick of the bowlers. At the second attempt, England had made it to their first World Cup final.
They still faced an uphill battle to claim the trophy, however, as they came up against the all-conquering West Indies team in the final. The hosts won the toss and put the holders in to bat as England sought to make early inroads. Though at one point they had the West Indies on the ropes at 99 for 4, there could be no doubting the strength in depth of the batting order they came up against. Viv Richards and Collis King struck back, putting together a 139-run that included a fine unbeaten century from the former and a brutal 66-ball 86 from the latter. Though England took quick wickets later in the innings, with four bowlers finishing with 2 wickets apiece, there was undoubtedly the sense that chasing the target down would take some fine aggressive cricket. When they came out to bat, though, the English opening partnership between Brearley and Geoffrey Boycott was solid if somewhat sedate. Though they passed 100 without the loss of a single wicket, the required run rate continued to climb, and when both batsmen fell for half-centuries it was down to the rest of the order to significantly accelerate things. Unfortunately for England, this need to up the ante coincided with great fast bowler Joel Garner hitting his stride, and the result remains the biggest batting collapse in World Cup final history. A succession of batsmen were bowled over by Garner, who finished with 5 wickets, as England fell from 183 for 2 to 194 all out, losing 8 wickets for just 11 runs. What had promised to be a close encounter, ended in a rout as England suffered their first ever Cup final defeat.
After enjoying another promising but ultimately disappointing tournament in 1983, in which they were beaten in the semi-finals by the eventual champions India, England travelled to the subcontinent for their first World Cup overseas. They adapted to the hot and dry conditions better than most in the group stage, starting their tournament with a thrilling 2 wicket victory over the mighty West Indies, as Neil Foster starred with the ball and Allan Lamb with the bat. Though they fell to two defeats against hosts Pakistan, they qualified for the semi-finals with 3 further group-stage wins courtesy of strong performances by their top order and their wily spinners Eddie Hemmings and John Emburey. Their progression set up a semi-final rematch with India, their conquerors from 4 years previously. England, though, performed far more impressively this time out, with Graham Gooch making an impressive century and Mike Gatting an aggressive fifty as they posted 254 for 6. India responded strongly and seemed to be setting the match up for a tight finish when they reached 204 for 5, with Mohammad Azharuddin scoring a half-century. However, when he was trapped lbw by Hemmings, who went on to take 4 wickets in total, it sparked a collapse that saw India dismissed for 219, giving England another final berth.
Awaiting them in the final were the Australians, a side who were coming out of a comparatively lean spell in their history and instead becoming a prototype of the team that would go on to dominate world cricket in the 1990s. Choosing to bat first, Australia lost regular wickets but had their innings held together by an important 75 from David Boon. Boon’s effort was solid rather than dramatic, but laid the foundations for some late aggression from Mike Veletta, whose unbeaten 45 came from just 31 balls. Though England’s run chase got off to a poor start as Tim Robinson was dismissed for a golden duck, but Mike Gatting and Bill Athey put together a solid partnership to guide England towards their target. Everything changed, however, when Gatting attempted an ill-judged and uncharacteristic reverse-sweep off the left-arm spin of Allan Border. The ball looped into the air off Gatting’s bat and into the welcoming gloves of wicketkeeper Greg Dyer, leaving the batsman dismissed for 41. Though England kept on fighting, the momentum was decidedly back with the bowling side, and a combination of good spin bowling and poor running between the wickets, resulting in 2 run-outs, saw Australia to a tense victory by only 7 runs. The fateful 1987 final undoubtedly remains the closest an England side has ever come to World Cup glory.
The following tournament saw yet another promising England side fall at the final hurdle, another disappointment when victory was within their grasp. They played a positive brand of cricket from the outset, with all-rounders Chris Lewis, Ian Botham and Dermot Reeve integral to their efforts as they imposed themselves on the tournament’s group stage. They began with a tense 9-run victory over India thanks to a fine 91 from Robin Smith and an important bowling effort late on from Dermot Reeve, before continuing their run with convincing wins over the West Indies, Australia, Sri Lanka and South Africa. If this was not impressive enough, England also bowled out Pakistan for just 74, though rain prevented them for securing what would surely have been the simplest of victories. Though they finished this round of the tournament with defeats against New Zealand and, more surprisingly, Zimbabwe to bring them back down to Earth, there were certainly reasons to be positive about England’s chances as they qualified in second place.
They came up against Kepler Wessels’ South African side once again in the semi-finals in another rain-affected game at Adelaide. England, put in to bat, made an impressive 252 for 6 from their allocated 45 overs, with Graeme Hick scoring an aggressive 83 as the normally dangerous Allan Donald went for 69 runs from his 10 overs. South Africa, though, kept up with the required rate throughout most of the innings with contributions all down their batting order. When rain struck with the batting side needing 22 runs off 13 balls, the match seemed finely poised. However, the ‘most productive overs’ rule, in place before the advent of Duckworth-Lewis, revised South Africa’s target to 22 runs from 1 ball – an obviously impossible ask. What had promised to be a thrilling finish ended in a disappointing and bizarre anti-climax, but it was enough to see England through to their third final in four tournaments.
England’s opponents in the final this time were Pakistan, a side equally desperate to get their hands on the World Cup trophy for the first time, and it was their captain, Imran Khan, who won the toss. Opting to bat first, his side found themselves in some trouble at 24 for 2, thanks to 2 early wickets from Derek Pringle, but Khan and Pakistan great Javed Miandad fought back with 72 and 58 respectively to steady the ship. When each fell late in the innings, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Wasim Akram provided some late impetus, as their aggressive batting saw Pakistan to the strong total of 249 for 6. England’s run chase began shakily as Pakistan’s bowlers made early inroads to reduce them to 69 for 4, before Neil Fairbrother and Allan Lamb began to rebuild. With the match at a crucial juncture as England reached 141 for 4, however, it was the great Wasim Akram who stepped up to take the game away from England, just as Joel Garner had 13 years before. With two devastating deliveries, an outswinger and an inswinger, he bowled over Allan Lamb and next man Chris Lewis in successive balls. Though England struggled on, they were always fighting a losing battle, and were eventually bowled out for 227 in the final over of the innings, falling short by 22 runs. In what remains their most recent appearance in the competition’s final, England once again tasted bitter disappointment instead of the glory they so coveted.
If this look at previous England World Cup campaigns seems to have been more heavily focused on the first few editions of the tournament, this is because in more recent years there has been very little of note for English sides in the competition, save for the regular ignominy of early exits. In the 6 tournaments that have followed 1992, England have only qualified from the initial group stage 3 times, and have never got as far as the semi-finals. Perhaps their lowest point was at the World Cup’s most recent iteration in Australia and New Zealand in 2015. There was cause for England fans to be optimistic before the tournament kicked off, with a side that seemed to fuse the youthful talent of the likes of Joe Root and Jos Buttler with the experienced heads of Stuart Broad, James Anderson and Ian Bell. Their campaign, however, got off to the worst possible start when they faced Australia at the MCG. Their bowling attack was smashed to all parts by Aaron Finch, who notched up a fine century, with support from Glenn Maxwell and skipper George Bailey, as the hosts compiled a formidable total of 342 for 9 from their 50 overs. In response, England’s innings never came anywhere near its target, as they were stunned by Mitchell Marsh’s 5 early wickets to fall to 92 for 6. Though there was a late fightback led by James Taylor’s stoic 98 not out, in truth England never came close to Australia’s score, falling to defeat by 111 runs. Things, however, were to get worse for the England side, as they capitulated to 123 all out batting first against New Zealand, torn apart by a 7-wicket haul from Tim Southee. To add insult to injury, New Zealand chased down their target in under 13 overs, thanks to a brutal 77 from 25 balls from Brendan McCullum, leaving England truly in dire straits.
Victory against Scotland was the bare minimum England needed to avoid an unmitigated disaster, something they duly achieved by 119 runs, but the key matches England needed to win were against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Batting first against the Sri Lankans, England seemed to have found their way out of their slump when Joe Root made an excellent century to lead England to the strong total for 309 for 6. Sri Lanka, though, ended up making a mockery of England’s score, as excellent centuries from Lahiru Thirimanne and Kumar Sangakkara saw them home with 9 wickets still in hand. Their clash with Bangladesh in Adelaide, then, was England’s last chance saloon. Winning the toss, England captain Eoin Morgan put Bangladesh in to bat, where they recovered from 8 for 2 thanks to a crucial century from Mahmudullah. Powered late on by an aggressive 89 from Mushfiqur Rahim, Bangladesh finished on 275 for 7, a total that was considerable but not beyond England’s reach. Though they got off to a promising start, with Ian Bell making a composed fifty, they suffered a customary English middle-order collapse that saw them fall from 121 for 2 to 132 for 5. Buttler and Chris Woakes led a spirited fightback, but when the former and next man Chris Jordan – the victim of a somewhat controversial run-out – fell in successive balls, the game looked all but done. England’s tail tried to inch them towards their target, but were bowled out 15 runs short. Bangladesh progressed to the quarter-finals, while England’s World Cup disappointment went on as they were eliminated at the group stages yet again.
Image Credit: Ben Sutherland