If the England football team’s World Cup record is abysmal, consider the plight of England’s cricketers. With the next cricket World Cup in Australia and New Zealand starting this Saturday, England will be looking to end a 50-over trophy drought dating back 40 years since the ICC first staged the tournament.
But according to England fast-bowling legend Bob Willis, that barren run is set to continue. “I’m afraid England aren’t strong enough in both batting and bowling departments so I make us huge outsiders for this competition,” he says, pessimistically.
Robert George Dylan Willis came closer than any Englishman to experiencing World Cup success. An integral part of the team that finished runners-up to West Indies in 1979, he also captained England to semi-final defeat in 1983. Since then, a solitary final appearance ending in familiar defeat in 1992 is all England have mustered.
So what is it about the World Cup that causes England to fail so dismally? “We’ve a history of playing virtually our Test line-up in one-day matches,” says Willis.
“The 50-over game moved on and England have never really caught up. You need dynamic players at the top of the order like Australia’s David Warner and Aaron Finch, who go at it from the very first ball. Australia, India and South Africa have always had the strength in depth in their batting line-up that allows them to do that.
“They can lose three or four wickets and still have reliable batsmen at 7 and 8 who can chase scores in excess of 300. England have consistently lacked that, but at least there are signs they’ve started to address it.”
Part of that restructuring process recently involved promoting Ian Bell up the order to open the innings. “It was a very wise move,” confirms Willis. “In the 50-over game you need openers who can pace an innings and accelerate quickly. Bell’s brilliant at that and his experience will be crucial at the top of the order.”
Willis is also in favour of Eoin Morgan’s appointment as new one-day captain. “Morgan’s got England playing in a more aggressive way than under Alastair Cook’s leadership. He likes to give his bowlers attacking fields to get early wickets, whereas Cook’s formula was to contain the opposition early on.
“But you’re never going to contain the likes of Australia’s Warner and Finch. You’ve got to dismiss them. Fortunately, Morgan subscribes to the idea that the best way of winning one-day matches is to bowl the opposition out.”
Wouldn’t England’s chances be further improved by recalling the controversial but undeniably talented Kevin Pietersen? I wouldn’t have him anywhere near the squad for this tournament,” says Wills unequivocally “The guy’s been a disruptive influence in every dressing room he’s ever been in. And don’t forget the Delhi Daredevils, the Indian Premier League side he captained, won only two out of 14 matches with him in it. So he’s clearly not a strong advert for team spirit.
“To have any chance of even reaching the semi-finals, England need to play at their absolute best. All the time. And that’s a huge ask. The other problem for England is they’ll be playing three of their matches in New Zealand, where the pitches aren’t fast and bouncy. That doesn’t suit either our bowlers or batsmen who enjoy the ball coming onto the bat more.”
Instead, Willis predicts a South African victory. “With their outstanding batting and bowling line-up, they’re the side that’s best equipped to win the trophy. Australia, India and Sri Lanka are strong, but no match for them. While Pakistan are mercurial, so you never know what form they’re going to turn up in. They clearly have talented individuals, but their team ethic isn’t the best.”
While predicting only a quarter-final place for England, Willis does offer a glimmer of hope. “With no one expecting too much from England, at least the players won’t be burdened by pressure. In fact, the lack of pressure might just free them up to come out with all guns blazing and surprise a few teams.
“Stranger things have happened in cricket.”