SPECIAL REPORT: How England turned from woeful chumps to world champs

From the gutter to the stars: Behind-the-scenes tricks and tactics that turned England from woeful chumps to world champions

  • Eoin Morgan and England had a disastrous campaign at the World Cup in 2015
  • Morgan’s side failed to get out of the group stages at the Australia showpiece
  • Andrew Strauss refused to make a knee-jerk decision and stood by Morgan
  • Four years later, Morgan guided England to their first-ever World Cup at Lord’s 

Andrew Strauss pauses as he considers his decision, more than four years ago, to stand by Eoin Morgan.

The 2015 World Cup had been a familiar disaster for the English game, yet knee-jerkism from the ECB’s then director of cricket would have made things worse.

Strauss knew that Morgan, who had assumed the captaincy from Alastair Cook not long before the tournament, had been given no time to implement his vision. 

Eoin Morgan lifts the spoils of England’s cricket revolution which was years in the making

He also knew that profound change would be England’s only way of disrupting a cycle of World Cup embarrassments. And he knew that Morgan knew.

‘I was very clear that a break with the past was needed,’ says Strauss. ‘We needed to be aggressive, take the game to the opposition, try to develop match-winners. 

‘If you want to do that, you need a captain who embodies that and can be a role model — and that was Eoin. He’s clear in his thinking and he’s not going to back down.

‘What I didn’t realise was how fantastic he was going to be with that group. He developed into a first-class leader.’

Less than a week on from the miracle at Lord’s, where Morgan became the first England men’s captain to lift the 50-over World Cup, details are still emerging of a dressing room which left nothing to chance in their bid to go from laughing stock to champions in a single four-year cycle. The details say much about Morgan’s leadership.

Morgan has his head in his hand during a press conference at the 2015 Cricket World Cup

He is a player capable of combining the broadest brushstrokes with the smallest minutiae — what England’s rugby World Cup-winning head coach Sir Clive Woodward called the ‘one-per-centers’.

After Morgan’s side lost to Sri Lanka and Australia in the group stage, the team analysts, led by Cambridge maths graduate Nathan Leamon, looked at two areas that needed improvement.

The first was the question of singles: simply, England were leaking too many.

‘We’d become too comfortable conceding six or seven an over, either because the asking rate was higher than that, or we were comfy chasing 300,’ says Leamon. 

‘If it’s 350 plays 350, a single is a victory. If it’s 240 plays 240, a single is a defeat. So we had to reorganise. The fielders had to get off the ring and pressurise the singles. 

‘The bowlers had to hit hard lengths, and not only use variations and slower balls. We had to force more dot balls.’

England immediately put the plan into action in the first of their must-win group games, against India at Edgbaston, conceding only 28 in the first 10-over powerplay. 

Chris Woakes began with three maidens, and the Indians fell so far behind the rate that they never recovered.

The second area of concern was an excess of runs being given away behind square. In particular, third man and fine leg were being beaten on the inside — a bugbear of former England coach Duncan Fletcher. 

England failed to get out of the group stages as questions loomed over Morgan’s captaincy

The brains trust concluded spicier pitches and the presence of three 90mph bowlers — Jofra Archer, Mark Wood and Ben Stokes — meant outside edges were going finer.

Against India, the fielders behind square adjusted their positions. Shots that had previously flown for four were now being turned into ones or twos. Like all potential champions, England were adapting as they went along.

These two details are typical of a side who have continually evolved, despite suggestions they were a team of biffers, incapable of nuance.

Asked after Sunday’s World Cup final at what point he thought England could go all the way, Joe Root went back to the very first game of the white-ball revolution, against New Zealand at Edgbaston in 2015, when they cracked 408 for nine — their first time through the 400 barrier.

But if that was the moment England’s potential became clear, there would be plenty of obstacles ahead. 

Perhaps the most telling came at Cardiff in 2017, when England misread the pitch in the Champions Trophy semi-final against Pakistan and lost by eight wickets. Gone was the gung-ho liberation, replaced by old-fashioned tentativeness.

‘Losing that game was probably the best thing that happened to us,’ says Paul Farbrace, then England’s assistant coach. ‘It focused our minds. We couldn’t go backwards.’

Inevitably, perhaps, they did. The Bristol night out that led to suspensions for Stokes and Alex Hales might have thrown England off course. Instead, they reinstated Jason Roy as opener.

Then Hales was ditched shortly before the World Cup when news broke of two failed drugs tests.

Four years on, England pulled off one of the most remarkable World Cup-winning campaigns

By the narrowest of margins, England pulled off a historic super over win to beat New Zealand

For the senior players, it was the last straw. At a team meeting in Colombo before Christmas, the team had settled on a mantra of ‘courage, unity and respect’. Hales, they felt, had cut himself adrift.

It was a rare meeting for a team who came to rely on mutual trust and understanding.

‘I don’t like meetings,’ says Morgan. ‘We had one before the Edgbaston game four years ago against New Zealand, and another in that series when we were bowled out inside 50 overs. But they were more about reaffirming our beliefs. Everyone bought into them.’

Instead, much of the decision-making took place between Morgan, Strauss, head coach Trevor Bayliss and Farbrace, who says: ‘We’d seep messages into the team. After 18 months, the players started repeating them back to us, and felt like they were their ideas. It worked really nicely.’

Even so, Hales’s aberration looked costly when Roy tweaked a hamstring in England’s fourth World Cup game, against West Indies at Southampton, propelling James Vince into the opening slot and robbing England of the early momentum that was so central to their gameplan.

That plan was formulated in 2015, when new playing regulations meant a fifth fielder could drop out of the inner ring for the last 10 overs. 

Ben Stokes (right) was one of England’s many heroes during the campaign this summer

The implication was clear: contrary to the old orthodoxy, scoring would now become more difficult as an innings progressed, not easier. The time to cash in would be the first powerplay.

The return of Roy, despite not being 100 per cent fit, for the India match allowed England to revert to Plan A — with startling results. He and Jonny Bairstow added 160, then 123 against New Zealand at Chester-le-Street, followed by 124 in 17.2 overs in the semi-final destruction of Australia.

But the all-guns-blazing tactic had repercussions. In case of early wickets, England knew they had to bat deep. Where they had previously picked three or four out-and-out bowlers, they were now wary of a long tail. 

It fitted their approach perfectly that Liam Plunkett, Adil Rashid and David Willey — until he was replaced by Archer — could all bat.

Then there were overs 11-40, the period between the initial thrash and the final throes. Crucially, England knew they had an engine room capable of scoring at a run a ball against spin: Root, Morgan and Stokes.

When innings throughout the World Cup cast aside the traditional theory of doubling the 30-over score, England’s logic — that the hard work had to be done up front — was vindicated. And on slower surfaces, any late dash for runs had to be exquisitely timed.

England captain Morgan shows off the World Cup trophy to a group of young fans

Root was considered the team’s best judge of a pitch. ‘He would say if we try to get 290, we might get 310, but if we try to get 350, we might blow up,’ says Leamon. ‘There was more control to the approach; try to stay close to a run a ball, then have a go at the end.’

England spent the two years between the Champions Trophy and the World Cup insisting they had learned from Cardiff. Yet when they regressed in the modest chase of 233 against Sri Lanka, it looked as if they had learned nothing.

Deep down, though, they knew they had changed. They were top of the world rankings, had beaten almost every team in the world in bilateral series and trusted each other implicitly.

‘I reckon a lot of it was about the players staying true to themselves,’ says Farbrace. ‘They were going to do it the way they wanted to do it.’

As Roy’s return from deep midwicket headed for Jos Buttler’s gloves on Sunday off the last ball of New Zealand’s super over, it was clear the belief had paid off.

Yes, England enjoyed some luck. But no one could say they hadn’t earned it.

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