England are currently playing New Zealand in a warm-up ODI series before the two teams meet in Gujarat to kick off the World Cup roadshow in October. It has been eight years since Eoin Morgan’s Three Lions played Brendon McCullum’s Kiwis in a bilateral series that marked a turning point in the former’s approach to the 50-over game.
The game at a sunny Edgbaston in June 2015 wasn’t as memorable as the dramatic Super Over finish in the 2019 final between the two teams, but it was a vital staging post of a four-year journey. The first signs of Bazball were seen well before McCullum became England’s Test coach in May 2022.
When Morgan was handed the unenviable task of leading the team just a few months before the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, it was too late to make a serious impact on the structure or methodology of a monotone side. Suffice it to say that England lost heavily to Australia, Sri Lanka and even Bangladesh to exit the tournament. Coach Peter Moores was tagged as a laptop-driven coach obsessed with data.
Morgan knew something had to change after an apocalyptic defeat against the Kiwis in Wellington. His opposite number McCullum smashed 77 from 25 balls as the Black Caps won by eight wickets with 38 overs to spare. This was serious wreckage, an unrecoverable write-off that required major reconstruction and a new start.
It was the third time in the last 16 years that the three-time runners-up had left the competition at the earliest opportunity. “We would have to have an absolute stinker not to make the quarter-finals,” said fast bowler Stuart Broad before things unravelled.
England carried ODI attitudes from the Jurassic Age of the 1990s when steady accumulation was the order of the day. During the 2007 World Cup, they had crawled to 9 for no wicket off seven overs against South Africa with Ian Bell and Michael Vaughan stuck in treacle. The rest of the world had embraced a far more proactive approach from the first powerplay. “England had the wrong team, the wrong style of play and everyone could see it,” Shane Warne said.
In retrospect, the old heads in the previous team didn’t know any better. Exiting captain Alastair Cook had a strike rate of 77.13, the same as Jonathan Trott who had been the team’s best batsman in the 2011 tournament statistically. These were hardly pigeon-scattering big hitters. Bell was a classic batsman, not someone who could smoke it. Moeen Ali was tried at the top of the order, a play that usually failed in all forms of the game. Towards the end of that fateful 2015 edition, only Jos Buttler showed an unfettered talent for blazing with abandon. That was the blueprint going forward.
When the slow agony was over, the Dublin-born captain knew the team had to fly at teams to keep up with the speeding Joneses. Glenn Maxwell (strike rate of 188 in the ’15 World Cup), McCullum (182), AB De Villiers (144), David Miller (140), David Warner (120) and Chris Gayle (117) were miles ahead of England’s leading run-scorer, Bell (77).
In the first ODI of five at Birmingham, England went hell for leather. It didn’t matter that they had already lost six wickets by the end of the 30th over. Their rate had pushed over six and they still had batsmen capable of doubling the total. They batted deep now and were given full license to unleash without any guilt. The final total of 408 contained 14 maximums and 38 boundaries. That man Buttler blasted 129 off 77 balls. Even number 10 Liam Plunkett deposited two sixes in three balls to finish off the innings.
‘Baz’ and ‘Morgs’ shared what might be termed a bromance to use the modern parlance. The passive nature of England’s approach to chiselling out scores was anathema to the way both of these characters saw life. Different strokes were needed and these two had plenty of them.
‘We just hit it off. We like racing, we like beer, we like golf, we like playing free-spirited cricket, we are very similar people and, while at quite different stages of our lives, our relationship is fantastic,” said McCullum in an interview with the Daily Mail. They stayed in each other’s houses and played on the same pitch together in the IPL. The influence was stronger than a bloodline.
By the end of that ODI series in 2015, England had completely redefined what was possible. The captain himself had smashed 113 to tie the series at 2-2 and the home side took the spoils in the decider. Bowling partnerships were now much more varied with different attack angles and combinations.
Following the processes, whatever the highs and lows, brought real change, certainty and results. England racked up 15 wins and one draw from 19 bilateral series and scored more than 300 almost 40 times. A number one ranking followed and, after a few near misses, they landed the big one on home soil.
England are now the kings of the white ball game, and current World T20 champions too after victory over Pakistan last November. It has been some transformation from the tortoise to the hare.