Injury, age or inaction? A closer look at England’s early struggles at World Cup

England’s World Cup title defence is already on rocky ground after a shock at the hands of Afghanistan left them with two defeats from their first three matches in India.

Here, the PA news agency assesses some of the key issues underpinning their early struggles at the tournament.

A step too far?

England ICC World Cup Champions Celebrations – Kia Oval
Many of England’s World Cup-winning squad from 2019 are in India (Steven Paston/PA)

The epic drama of 2019’s Lord’s final was the crowning achievement of England’s golden generation in white-ball cricket, so it is hardly surprising so many of that squad are back for another bite of the cherry.

But with eight thirty-something survivors from the squad four years ago, there is a growing feeling that too many of the team are past their peak. How many of the world champion team can truly claim to be better than they were last time around? How many have half an eye on retiring from 50-over cricket sooner rather than later?

The bar has been fiendishly high to break into this set-up for years, but head coach Matthew Mott may reflect that a greater injection of fresh blood would have helped.

Hip, hip but no hooray for Stokes

Ben Stokes
Ben Stokes has been sidelined by a hip injury (Zac Goodwin/PA)

It is hard to overstate Ben Stokes’ value to English cricket over the past decade. He carried the side home in the 2019 final, performed a similar trick to land the T20 crown last year and has reinvented the Test team as captain through sheer force of will.

When he decided to reverse his ODI retirement for one more tilt at the 50-over trophy, it looked like England had rediscovered the ace in their pack.

But the red flags over his fitness have been there for at least two years and it was hardly a jaw-dropping surprise when he picked up a hip complaint on the eve of the tournament. His skill and scrapping qualities have been sorely missed and the team are already at make-or-break point before he has even taken the field.

Eyes off the prize

England are not alone in struggling to grapple with the complexities of the global calendar, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that they arrived in India undercooked as a one-day unit. Having played 88 ODIs in the 2015-19 cycle, they dropped to 42 in the run-up to this edition. That may have been symptomatic of a wider trend but the sidelining of the domestic Metro Bank Cup, now seen as a development competition alongside the glitz of The Hundred, was all about priorities.

England have also pivoted their focus to Test cricket once again, which had not always been the case in Eoin Morgan’s era. That meant key players like Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow, Mark Wood and Stokes were occasional visitors to the one-day set-up rather than mainstays.

Alternatives were capped but rarely empowered, while Jason Roy played more times than anyone else from tournament to tournament only to miss out on the final squad.

Stepping back from attack

Netherlands v England – 1st One Day International – VRA Cricket Ground
England fell just short of becoming the first team to score 500 runs in an ODI innings (David Charlesworth/PA)

There was a story during the lead in to the last World Cup that new scorecards were printed to account for the possibility of a side, most likely England, scoring 500 in an innings. The print shops of India are making no such considerations now.

Whether it is pitches, balls or bowlers evolving, it feels an more even game these days but England have been left on the back foot in both of their losses so far.

For a side whose 2019 World Cup success was owed to a boundary countback, they are beginning to look surprisingly shot shy. New Zealand hit nine more fours and two more sixes in Ahmedabad and unfancied Afghanistan cleared the ropes eight times to England’s one in Delhi.

While ‘Bazball’ has re-energised the red-ball side, Mott must make sure things do not go in the opposite direction under his watch.