They say it’s the hope that kills you.
When Mitchell Starc ran in and delivered a rapid, inch-perfect inswinging Yorker to hit the base of the off-stump, send the zing bails flying and send Ben Stokes trudging off to the pavilion that’s when most Englishmen inside Lord’s felt theirs’ slip away.
Stokes was at the non-strikers’ end for England’s disappointing slump on Friday against Sri Lanka; this time he was on the balcony for the closing stages of another damaging defeat by Australia.
Since their nadir at the 2015 World Cup England have grown in stature, confidence and climbed the rankings. In that period they haven’t lost many games – but when they did they invariably regathered, recalibrated and hit back decisively.
Until today England hadn’t lost successive one-day internationals since January 2017. To lose twice towards the business end of a home competition in which they were strong favourites and when they haven’t yet sealed a semi-final place is concerning.
Considering England’s final two games are against the only two unbeaten sides in the competition, India and New Zealand, and they’ve not beaten either at a World Cup since 1992 it’s understandable that many who left St Johns Wood might be worried.
Eoin Morgan is not unduly worried. “I think it [our confidence] has taken a little bit of a hit,” England’s captain conceded post-match. “I certainly don’t think it’s in danger, but when you lose games of cricket we have to go back to what we do well.
“Our chances are in our hands. Things are within our control. We just need to win either one or both of the next two games.”
That is, of course, true. All may not be lost. But when you’ve just been defeated in two games by margins of 64 and 20 runs chasing totals which used to be considered meagre ones it’s not that simple.
And to think the day started so positively. Under leaden skies, after a night of rain and amid humid conditions Morgan won the toss and the crowd breathed a sigh of relief. The thinking was conventional and understandable. At the home of cricket England would bowl first, make the most of the conditions and put Australia on the back-foot early on.
Unfortunately for them they encountered the tournament’s hottest opening partnership. David Warner and Aaron Finch were undoubtedly fortunate, but they battled on to give their side a platform of 123 runs. According to analytics app CricViz the duo had a false shot percentage of 32 per cent in the first 15 overs – the highest in 134 instances in ODIs when teams have not lost a wicket.
But although it could be argued England erred on the short side – Jason Behrendorff said they did, Morgan politely disagreed – it is irrefutable that, Stokes (89) aside, Australia out-batted their opponents.
Finch lead from the front with 100, Warner made a belligerent 53 and Steve Smith and Alex Carey both added useful knocks of 38 as Australia reached 285-7.
In contrast, England were undone by some high-quality left-arm swing bowling at the top, subsiding to 26-3 and never recovering. Both World Cup and Lord’s debutant Behrendorff (5-44) and tournament leading wicket-taker Starc (4-43) were good, but the batting – which not so long ago used to be strong suit – was misguided.
Morgan was caught at fine-leg hooking; Jos Buttler on the square leg boundary from a Marcus Stoinis gentle long-hop.
“Both in this game and the last we’ve struggled with the basics – what we call our batting mantra: our intent, batting in partnerships and doing it in the right way,” Morgan explained. “We haven’t done those for long enough.”
With 19 days to go until the final, home favourites are supposed to be hitting their stride, refining their tactics and perhaps even enjoying the luxury of rotating their squad. Instead, England are struggling with the basics.
As Morgan was at pains to make clear, England’s fate is still in their hands. But with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan all potentially breathing down their necks and two crunch games against unbeaten sides to come, they are faced with a situation they would much rather have avoided.