Moeen Ali has admitted that “the spark has been missing” during the dismal start to England’s World Cup defence, and said the challenge in what looks likely to be their final five games of the tournament is simple: if they cannot be a great team, at least be a fun one.
“There’s no point playing the way we’re playing and then go out and go home and you have regrets,” Moeen said. “If we’re going to lose, let’s lose how we’ve been playing over the years. I always believed, and I believe still, that if we play how we play and how we know we can play, most teams we’ll beat. We’re going to have to beat every team now but let’s at least go out with a bang if we’re going to go out, and be entertaining. That’s really important, because it’s something we haven’t been at all.”
England have lost against New Zealand, Afghanistan and South Africa while beating only Bangladesh. On Thursday they face an injury-ravaged Sri Lanka, who have also won just once, after which they will have fewer than 72 hours to relocate 1,800km north to Lucknow and prepare to face India on Sunday. Having sat out the past three games, Moeen feels he has been able to identify some of the reasons behind the team’s troubles.
“When you sit outside for a while, sometimes you see things that you don’t see when you’re playing,” he said. “When you see it from the outside, it’s just like that spark is missing, that thing is missing where we’re enjoying taking bowlers down, enjoying going out to bat. I know the situations haven’t always been easy but still, it’s a game of cricket at the end of the day and I think we’re probably taking it too seriously in certain ways.
“It’s almost having that carefree kind of attitude – who cares, it’s a game of cricket. I mean, you’re going to make mistakes, you might as well make them doing what you’re good at doing. And we’re making mistakes anyway, so just do it with a smile on your face.”
Happily there will be no repeat of the humid heatwave England faced on Saturday in balmy Bengaluru. Moeen was based in the city for two Indian Premier League seasons, while he was playing for Royal Challengers Bangalore, and knows the conditions they are likely to face in the M Chinnaswamy Stadium. “I know it well, it’s a great venue and a great place to play cricket,” he said. “If I do play I’ll go for a few runs, because it’s quite small and a flat wicket, but it’s also good for batting. It’s one of those grounds where scoring is quick and batting deep makes a big difference.”
Against South Africa in Mumbai, England abandoned their longstanding preference for all-rounders, with whom they were able to maximise batting depth and bowling options, and having been brutally punished for doing so are likely to return to the previous model. One change has been forced on them: Reece Topley has returned home after breaking a finger and though his replacement, Brydon Carse, arrived on Wednesday morning he is unlikely to be rushed straight into the team. Moeen is expected to return, with Chris Woakes potentially getting a chance to prove that his previous poor form was a three-off.
“We [tried] a different way because we haven’t been playing well,” Moeen said. “Obviously it didn’t work, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it changes and we go back to what we’ve been doing for the last I don’t know how many years. It’s just one of those things that didn’t work on that day.”
Should England win they would draw level with Pakistan and Afghanistan on four points, still two behind Australia in the final semi-final spot. Given their remaining fixtures they know that if they were to win all their games with a flourish, the only thing that could stop them reaching the semi-finals would be Afghanistan going on an astonishing winning streak. There is, in short, a clear path, but navigating it will require nothing less than perfection. Lose to Sri Lanka and while not yet being mathematically eliminated they would need not just snookers, but several acts of God.
For Moeen the prescription is clear: “Bat better, bowl better and field better. That is the only real thing we can do.”