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England is stuck in a no man’s land as they waver between attack and defence

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A train was the light at the end of the tunnel. For the past four weeks, England has been touring India, discussing how to deal with defeats and wait for the statement performance that has never materialized. This might have been the worst of their losses, if their losses to South Africa, Afghanistan, and New Zealand weren’t awful enough.

The M. Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru was the kind of place where England ought to have excelled. They decided to bat first in the first of five crucial must-win matches, on a flat surface with short boundaries. After six overs, they rattled along to 44 for 0, and now they could finally afford to dream big: would 350 be enough to destroy Sri Lanka, or should they aim for 400?

In 33.2 overs, they scored 156 all out, which is the lowest in the rich history of this ground for a full innings. Despite Sri Lanka’s bowlers’ skill and energy on the field, England was dismissed. Angelo Mathews, the guy who delivered the opening blow, is 36 years old and hasn’t taken an international wicket since he turned 33.

When Maheesh Theekshana leg-side wide to David Willey in the 32nd over of England’s innings, they were 146 for 8, but what came next summed up their World Cup experience thus far. As Kusal Mendis heard Adil Rashid at the non-striker’s end, he scooted across, took the ball cleanly, and started to remove his right glove.

Everyone concerned knew exactly what had transpired when Adrian Holdstock sent the decision upstairs after Mendis’ dead-eye throw caught Rashid short of his ground. It was a flash of creativity, talent and, most importantly, confidence in oneself, three qualities that England have badly needed in the last three weeks.

Rashid fell asleep throughout the game, although it was one of several dismissals that resulted from confused thinking. Joe Root ran himself out after slapping Theekshana squarely in the face; Jonny Bairstow scored a cross-batted hack on midfield; Jos Buttler showed off his firm hands and flat feet; and Liam Livingstone was caught in front, trying to fire a flamingo-flick into the leg side.

England used to be experts at rotating the strike and utilizing spin during middle overs. Their hitters have only achieved five 50-plus runs between them, the fewest of any team; they appear to waver between attack and defence at the moment, and they have lost more wickets to spin than any other team in this tournament (22).

Moeen Ali’s own innings aligned with the harsh critique of his teammates that he had offered just a day before. He and Ben Stokes shared a 37-run sixth-wicket partnership during which he hit one boundary through the covers. On 15, Mathews sent him a wide, 75 mph long-hop; he chipped it right to backward point with a half-committed cut shot. For all of Moeen’s strengths, this was comfortably mild.

For a little period, Stokes appeared to be playing the kind of game-saving innings that England had hoped for when he qualified for the World Cup two months prior. After making 13 off his first 36 balls, he was given out LBW while reverse-sweeping Theekshana, but he began to grind through the gears until a thin bottom edge spared him on review.

He tugged Dhananjaya de Silva’s offspin in the same way that he shattered Dilshan Madushanka for three pulled fours past midwicket. However, Stokes eventually ran out of partners and decided to take matters into his own hands. He lined up the upper tier and struck just off the rope, picking out substitute fielder Dushan Hemantha, after swinging hard at Kumara’s fast bouncer.

Stokes has contributed a total of 48 runs off 81 balls and two catches during the tournament, with England on the verge of elimination. When he returned from injury, they selected an unbalanced team in Mumbai and dropped their best young player, Harry Brook, in Bengaluru, even though he was only fit enough to play as a specialist batter. Although his retirement U-turn was intended to solve English problems, it has instead made them worse.

With such a low total to defend, England was down to nothing on the field. The fact that Willey, the only bowler to really make an impact, was not considered good enough to play four years ago and is the only player in this team not to have received an offer for one of the lucrative core contracts that were released two days prior to this loss, was cruelly fitting.

After a decade of unparalleled success, England put their trust in their golden generation and reunited for one more shot at an ICC tournament, maintaining their status as the holders of both white-ball World Cups. Following their victories in Australia in 2022 and on home soil in 2019, 2023 in India has proven to be one tournament too far.

Livingstone (who turned 30 in August) was the youngest player they selected on Thursday, having scored 31 runs in four innings. England placed a large bet on the benefit of experience, but their players appear stale and uninspired. They have collapsed gradually and then abruptly, following in the best tradition of England’s greatest athletic teams.

Even though England has suffered many horrific defeats throughout the World Cup, this was their fifth consecutive loss to Sri Lanka, and it rates among the worst of them. Even with their greatest fast bowler, captain, and first-choice spinner absent, Sri Lanka is still not a team to contend with the 2007 or 2011 editions.

Nevertheless, it was more than sufficient to defeat a once-dominant England squad, as evidenced by the fact that Pathum Nissanka’s consecutive sixes to secure the victory came in just the 26th over. After finishing so early—by half past seven—a lengthy night of introspection is ahead.

Even an early return home would not be comforting since England still has four internal flights to catch, four hotels to book, and four games to attend. Up next? India, the unchallenged leaders, in Lucknow on Sunday. It’s possible that worst is yet to come.

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