It is proving to be an eventful summer in England. The hottest on record since 1976 has seen the country bask in the (almost) glory of their football team reaching the semi finals of the World Cup in Russia. Meanwhile, albeit to slightly less fanfare, the cricket team has won successive one-day series against the countries that between them have won the past five World Cups. Firstly, a severely depleted Australia, displaying all the depth of a Donald Trump tweet, was despatched 5-0. A sterner test followed with a three-match contest against the touring Indians. Spun out by a rampant Kuldeep Yadav in the first game, England bounced back to win matches at Lords and Headingley and take the series 2-1.
Inevitably, with the next World Cup less than twelve months away and hosted by England, expectation is rising that 2019 might finally be the year that the inventors of the game claim the world crown for the first time. We have been here before of course, with high expectation that is to say. England’s World Cup history is a sorry affair of “nearly” and “not quite good enough”. For those English fans with the courage to read on (and for the rest of you who enjoy a quiet chuckle) it is worth reflecting on the tale of woe that is England’s record in the World Cup before anyone gets too carried away about their prospects for next year.
England may have never won the World Cup, but initially at least they owned the tournament. They hosted the first three editions in 1975, 1979 and 1983 and the format of 60 overs-a-side was taken straight from their premier domestic one-day competition of the time, the Gillette Cup. In 1975 international one-day cricket was still in its infancy, in both appearance and approach. In fact, it was basically Test Cricket cut down to one-day size. Red ball, white clothes and a line up that replicated each country’s Test team. As for day/night cricket, well, the only light you might have seen at Lords would have been the one used by Doug Walters for his between-innings cigarette.
The 1975 World Cup played over two weeks in June involved eight teams being the six Test playing nations plus Sri Lanka as the leading associate nation and a one-off World Cup appearance by East Africa representing the countries of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia. England topped a group that included New Zealand, India and East Africa, winning all three games. However, their tournament came to an end in the semi final against Australia in a match that can be summarised in one word. Gilmour. All-rounder Gary Gilmour had not played in any of Australia’s group games but was brought into the side for the semi final at Headingley where it was felt that his left arm medium fast bowling would suit the traditionally seam friendly conditions. England lasted just thirty-six overs in making 93 and Gilmour became the first bowler to take six wickets in a one-day international claiming 6 for 14. However, the match was not done and nor was Gilmour. When the home team had Australia six down for thirty-nine they still had thoughts of playing in the final very much in mind. Gilmour then hit 28 at a run a ball to see Australia home without further loss. Gilmour backed up with a five wicket haul in the final but Australia lost as the West Indies, thanks to a century by captain Clive Lloyd, became the inaugural World Champions.
England went one better in 1979 making the final where they found the might of the West Indies waiting. If ever a match served to highlight contrasting approaches to the one-day game then this was it. A star-studded West Indies line up, still under the leadership of Clive Lloyd, knew only one approach to the game and thanks to a magnificent unbeaten 138 by Vivian Richards they posted an imposing 286/9 from their 60 overs. It tells you all you need to know about England’s attitude to the limited overs form of the game that their openers were Geoff Boycott and Mike Brearley. Seemingly unaware that this was a game that would not extend to a second or third day they went about compiling a careful, methodical stand of 129 in an excruciating thirty-eight overs. By the time they were both dismissed there was too much left to do and the rest of the team were rolled in the chase for runs to be all out for 194. The Windies were one-day kings again and would go to the 1983 tournament seemingly invincible and short odds to lift their third successive crown. That they failed to do so owed nothing to the efforts of England.
1983 saw the first tentative steps towards an expanded format. Whilst there was no increase to the eight countries involved, the group phase was extended with participants playing each other twice. England still qualified comfortably on top of their group leading to a semi final match against India. This was India’s first appearance at the semi final stage. Indeed, prior to the start of the tournament they were yet to beat a Test nation in a World Cup match, having lost all three group games in 1979 and triumphing over only East Africa in 1975. Unsurprisingly, then, the Englishmen were well fancied to make their second successive final, but tight bowling from India led by Kapil Dev (3/35) saw the Englishmen dismissed for 213 in their 60 overs. India rarely looked troubled in overhauling England’s total with five overs and six wickets to spare. If that was an upset then what followed in the final was stunning. India gave no indication of what was to come having been put into bat and dismissed by the pace of the Windies for 183. Miserly bowling from the Indians led superbly by Mohinder Amarnath (3 for 12 off 7 overs) meant the Windies never got close. As each new batsman came to the crease expectation rose that this would be the man to shake off the impertinent challenge from the subcontinent. As each player was returned to the pavilion disbelief turned to amazement at what was taking place. The West Indies 140 all out. India the World Champions. The news reverberated around the cricket world.
1983 did not signify a new world order (yet) but it did herald the end of England’s ownership of the hosting rights. If the World Cup was to be true to its name then it needed to go global and so in 1987 India had the chance to defend its title on home soil. The move away from England also saw a reduction in the number of overs to fifty per side in line with the format used internationally. England performed well, reaching their second final and managing to break the hearts of home fans by taking revenge for their 1983 loss when they beat India in the semi final thanks to a century by Graham Gooch. A final against Australia seemed to offer England their best chance yet to claim the trophy. The Australians under the captaincy of Allan Border were suffering from the loss of players to the South African “rebel” tours of the time and had exceeded expectations by making the final. Set a target of 254, England seemed well on the way at 2 for 135 with captain Gatting at the crease on forty-one. It is a little harsh on a fine player to suggest that Gatting’s career is most memorable for his notorious dismissals against the Australians, but after he fell to Allan Border’s part time spin the momentum turned (probably more than Border’s delivery) and it was Australia who secured a famous first World Cup title and sowed the seeds of an era that would eventually see the West Indies toppled as the game’s leading nation.
The Cup continued on its travels coming to the southern hemisphere for the first time in early 1992 to be hosted by Australia and New Zealand. The modern format of the World Cup can really take its cue from this edition with the introduction of coloured clothing, white balls and the first Cup games played under floodlights. The tournament was also noteworthy for the inclusion of South Africa following their re-admission to the international arena. Once again England made the final and once again a resurgent opponent usurped their role as protagonist this time in the shape of Imran Khan’s Pakistan. Despite Australia’s failure to make even the semi final stage a huge crowd packed the MCG to witness “The Lion of Lahore”, with a match high score of 72, lead his team to a famous victory akin to the breakthrough win achieved by their rivals India nearly a decade earlier.
Up to this point England could reasonably be categorised as the “nearly” men of the World Cup, having reached at least the semi final stage of each tournament. This could hardly be deemed failure. However failure was a word to which they were about to be introduced. Having made three of the first five World Cup finals England will go to the 2019 tournament still looking for their fourth appearance at the ultimate stage.
In 1996 the World Cup was hosted on the sub-continent and shared across India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The tournament was extended to twelve teams split into two groups with the top four from each qualifying for the quarter finals. This expanded format served only to extend the agony for a poor England team that barely made it out of their group in fourth place beating only the two Associate Member teams below them, United Arab Emirates and The Netherlands. This left them to face eventual winners Sri Lanka in the first elimination round and eliminated they were, by five wickets.
In 1999 the tournament was hosted once again by England but it made little difference to their fortunes. The format for the early stages was unchanged with twelve teams split across two groups. However the introduction of a “super six” second round meant that only three teams instead of four would qualify. South Africa topped England’s group whilst an historic win by Zimbabwe over India enabled them to finish on the same number of points as India and England with net run rate relegating England to fourth place and elimination at the group stage for the first time.
The World Cup came to Africa in 2003 with matches shared across South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya. This was not without its challenges with security concerns resulting in England forfeiting their match in Zimbabwe and New Zealand doing the same in Kenya. Again England failed to qualify for the “super six” stage conceding third place to Zimbabwe after the Zimbabweans shared the points in a rain affected game against Pakistan.
The 2007 World Cup hosted by the West Indies is probably best remembered for its chaotic climax in which Australia defeated Sri Lanka to secure their third successive crown. A rain affected final was reduced to a shambles when play was suspended due to bad light with three overs remaining and Australia in an unbeatable position. After lengthy consultation the final overs were played out in total confusion and near total darkness. Of course none of this impacted England who were no doubt watching from home by the time of the final. In a further expanded tournament of sixteen teams England found themselves able to conquer Kenya and Canada to scrape out of their group in second place behind New Zealand and qualify for what was now a “super eight” phase. However here they found themselves forced to play far too many Test sides and progressed no further.
The 2011 tournament was another sub-continental affair hosted across India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The group phase of fourteen nations playing for a quarter final round ultimately produced no surprises with the four associate nations plus Zimbabwe and Bangladesh being eliminated. England finished third in their group behind South Africa and India but went out at the first knockout stage to eventual runners-up Sri Lanka.
In 2015 the Cup was back down under as Australia and New Zealand co-hosted again and dominated the competition. Neither side lost to opposition from beyond host shores. New Zealand went unbeaten in the group phase including a thrilling one wicket victory over Australia at Eden Park. Both teams then sauntered to the final where Australia more than made up for that earlier defeat with an emphatic victory to become champions for the fifth time. Meanwhile England had a dismal campaign playing some insipid cricket and failing to qualify from their group.
2019: Is the World Cup Coming Home?
This most recent World Cup seems to have been something of a nadir for the England one-day team. Remarkably, since qualifying for the 1992 World Cup Final England have yet to win another knockout match and have qualified only once for a super group series being the expanded “super eight” in 2007. Clearly history is against them and yet optimism abounds for their prospects in 2019. For once, this optimism seems to be well founded.
Since the last World Cup England have played in sixteen one-day series plus the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy and a one-off match against Scotland. They have won thirteen of these series losing only on visits to South Africa in 2016 and India in 2017 with their only series defeat on home soil being against the newly crowned World Champions, Australia, in 2015. They also made the semi finals of the ICC Champions trophy where they were beaten by eventual champions Pakistan. In total, throughout this period they have won forty-eight matches and lost twenty. It is an impressive record.
However, it’s not just the results but also the manner in which they have been achieved which has generated such excitement (a word rarely used in association with English cricket). Finally the cloak of caution has been discarded. If England are to win next year’s World Cup it will be on the back of a batting line up that has shown an aggressive, almost cavalier approach to their work. In the games played since the 2015 World Cup, England have passed the magic three hundred mark on thirty-two occasions. During this period, they have posted fourteen of the twenty highest scores ever recorded by an England team in one-day internationals (including the only three times that they have passed four hundred).
Admittedly, scores are trending up across the board, but nevertheless this signifies a clear shift in England’s approach. They now have a line up that boasts an enviable blend of aggression and depth. At the top of the order various combinations of Jason Roy, Alex Hales and Jonny Bairstow have consistently given England the explosive start that earlier incarnations have failed to do. The potential for destruction continues down the order in the shape of all-rounder Ben Stokes and wicket keeper Jos Buttler whilst in Joe Root they have the rock around which an innings can be built when Plan B is required. All this without mentioning the reliable Eoin Morgan leading the team with over 200 ODIs now under his belt.
Whilst the bowling lacks star quality it has a settled look and does not rely too heavily on any one player. There is depth in the pace ranks where between them the likes of Mark Wood, Chris Woakes, Liam Plunkett, David Willey and Stokes invariably get the job done and will enjoy the benefit of home conditions next year. In Adil Rashid they have a leggie who has shown himself capable of winning matches in the one-day format. In the recent series against India he was overshadowed in the first game by Yadav but bounced back to take some crucial wickets in the remaining games, none more so than the magnificent delivery that bowled Virat Kohli in the decider.
We are too far from the finish line to start claiming the crown for England just yet. Injuries, loss of form and the simple absence of that bit of luck needed to carry an entire tournament may still conspire against them. There is also a lot of history for England to overcome and as their footballing counterparts will tell them, history is a heavy load to bear. Even so there is every chance that English excitement towards a World Cup in 2018 might have come twelve months too soon.
Image Credit: David Molloy