As Ben Stokes dragged himself back to the dressing-room – muttering darkly, shaking his head – it felt not so much like the end of England’s World Cup as the end of an era.
Stokes had just pulled Lahiru Kumara to deep midwicket for a hit-and-miss 43 off 73 balls, and soon England were all out for 156. Sri Lanka knocked off the runs for the loss of two wickets in a mismatch lasting 59 overs. It was damning reflection of England’s fall from grace.
Mathematically, Jos Buttler’s team are clinging on by their fingernails. By any other measure, they are out – not just beaten by a motivated Sri Lankan side led by the former England coach Chris Silverwood, but spanked, pulverised and humiliated.
This was a result which managed to be both their worst nightmare and fully in keeping with the shambolic nature of their title defence. And it raises serious questions about the ability of head coach Matthew Mott and captain Jos Buttler to get the most out of a talented but ageing bunch of cricketers. Even last year’s T20 triumph in Australia feels an age ago.
Never before has an ODI team been stocked purely by 30-somethings, as England were last night. The end of a few 50-over careers has just been hastened.
England suffered yet another dismal defeat in the Cricket World Cup to Sri Lanka today
This is England’s fifth successive defeat to Sri Lanka at the World Cup since 2007
Managing director Rob Key said on Tuesday that England needed time to ‘let the dust settle’. But that was before their latest horror show, and the dust is settling at an alarming rate.
Some of those multi-year central contracts look less clever now. In fact, the only England player to hit a six or take a wicket was David Willey – the one member of the World Cup squad to miss out on a new deal.
Ever since England lost to Afghanistan, the talk has been about reconnecting with the white-ball giants who still – at least for a few more weeks – have both World Cups in their cabinet. Mott himself, Buttler, Stokes, Joe Root, Moeen Ali have taken turns delivering a message that has been repeated so often it has lost all meaning.
Because let’s be honest, England’s entire strategy can be boiled down to an old maxim: it’ll be alright on the night. It turns out not to be a basis for a coherent World Cup.
They played 42 ODIs between the end of the last tournament and this one, having played 88 between the disaster of 2015 and the triumph of 2019. They rarely picked their best XI, pushing the 50-over format into third place in the pecking-order behind Tests and T20 – fourth place, if you count the Hundred.
They made a hash of the build-up, leaving the players on tenterhooks when it emerged the World Cup 15 was not as final as they had been told. Even here in India, picking the team has felt more like a game of pin the tail on the donkey.
The un-retirement of Stokes was reasonable enough, vindicated by his national-record 182 off 124 balls against New Zealand at The Oval. But it also said something about the last-minute nature of the planning. Then, of course, he injured his hip.
Chris Woakes of England scored a duck in his innings before failing to take any wickets
Buttler had little choice but to bat after winning the toss, having been stung by fielding against Afghanistan and South Africa. And, briefly, Dawid Malan played as if he had heeded the pleas, smashing six fours as England moved to 45 without loss in the seventh over.
But when he provided the returning veteran Angelo Mathews with his first ODI wicket for three and a half years, England reverted to the timidity that has typified their campaign.
Root was run out for three after setting off for a non-existent single, and has now made 16 off 33 balls in three innings since starting with a pair of half-centuries. Bairstow played an uncharacteristic smear to mid-on, and Buttler edged a booming drive. Stokes, meanwhile, could barely get it off the square until he connecting with a few.
Liam Livingstone, lucky to be recalled, played round a full one from Kumara, and has now made 31 runs in four innings. Moeen, who had urged England to go down swinging, cut to backward point.
The fiasco was summed up when Adil Rashid dawdled out of his crease at the non-striker’s end as wicketkeeper Kusal Mendis quick-wittedly threw down the stumps. For the first time, England had been bowled out for below 200 in successive World Cup games.
Willey raised a scintilla of hope with two early wickets, but it was snuffed out by Pathum Nissanka and Sadeera Samarawickrama.
Four defeats equals England’s worst World Cup haul, and their next opponents – in Lucknow on Sunday – are India. The fast-improving Australians also lie in wait. Soberingly, things could get even worse.