The Genius Fallacy: why English cricket has never produced a proper dynasty | England cricket team
Perhaps the most distressing aspect of England’s World Cup campaign has been its gradual but unmistakeable effect on Eoin Morgan’s face. This is a man, remember, who was captaining the side barely a year ago and who, during his frictionless transition into broadcasting, has made a decent stab at building a commentary career without actually passing comment on anything at all. Simplicity, gravitas, equivocation, inscrutable eyes. Something about India being wonderful hosts. Play it cool, and you could be a decade down the line before anyone asks you for a genuine opinion.
And it was all going so well, until this. Happy now, England? Daddy is sad. Look at Daddy. This is how Daddy looks when he is contractually obliged to stick the boot into his mates on television. Well, this is going to hurt him a lot more than it hurts you. “I’ve never come across a sports team that has underperformed like this,” Morgan spat on Sky Sports last week, and this is a guy who played for London Spirit.
All of which has now put England in the vaguely awkward predicament of how to respond to the criticism of their spiritual leader, their big boss, their creator. That’s right, Jerry Falwell, I’ve just had a word with God and he says you haven’t got a clue. And all while traipsing around India for almost three weeks playing in a competition they no longer have a hope of winning, wearing shirts with different-sized numbers and fonts that don’t match, getting smacked around by batters who have played just as little Royal London One-Day Cup as they have.
Perhaps it is little surprise, then, that in the face of their stunning implosion nobody at the scene of the crime seems to have a clue how it was committed. Jos Buttler has “no clear answers”. Marcus Trescothick is “baffled”. “I dunno, it’s really hard to explain,” said Matthew Mott, the head coach, with all the vacant indifference of an IT technician suggesting with a hapless shrug that you might try turning it off and on again.
Go back four years, of course, and everyone seemed convinced they knew how England had done it. Remember the lockdown watchalongs on Sky? Hours and hours of Morgan and Buttler and Ben Stokes explaining their many glories in granular detail. There were books and podcasts, long reads and documentaries. It was the data. It was the project. It was the ethos. It was the diversity. It was a lucky bat deflection in the last over of a tied final. Sorry: fate. To put a new spin on an old proverb: success has an entire dropdown menu of related content. Failure is a 404 error.
For any seasoned watcher of English sport, this is a familiar pattern: the cathartic triumph, the parade and associated tie-in merchandise, the inevitable decline. The men’s Ashes winners of 2005 became the whitewashed carcasses of 2006-07. England’s rugby union World Cup winners of 2003 disintegrated pretty much overnight, leaving a swathe of after-dinner bookings in their wake. The once dominant Team Sky, now Ineos Grenadiers, has been in gentle recession for years now, a fact that has apparently failed to prevent its guru from looking after the biggest football club in the world.
There are of course plenty of microfactors that have contributed to England’s subcontinental submission. A failure to adapt to conditions. A lack of full-strength 50‑over cricket. An ageing squad insufficiently challenged from above or below. Eccentric selections and poor choices at the toss. The decision to allow Stokes essentially to pretend to retire for a year, and then sashay back into the team with no questions asked.
But if you think about it, all of this really stems from one central issue, which you might call the Genius Fallacy. England essentially tried to win the 2023 World Cup by treating it as a 2019 tribute act, as if muscle memory and champion aura would do the rest. So you chase, because that’s what you did before. You pick most of the same guys, because that’s what you did before. You rip up your team balance to accommodate your retired all-rounder, who is – slight inconvenience – no longer an all‑rounder. Brydon Carse, your Liam Plunkett wig and costume is hanging in your locker. And you do this because on some level you have convinced yourselves that four years ago you discovered the secret to cricketing genius, and all you need to do is find the blueprints.
Perhaps this explains why England have so rarely managed to sustain and spread success, over years or across formats. No England side in our lifetimes, male or female, has ever held the Ashes for more than three consecutive series. The West Indies had a dynasty. Australia had perhaps the greatest of all. India may be about to crown theirs. South Africa and New Zealand have topped the Test and 50-over world rankings simultaneously. English cricket’s pantheon, by contrast, essentially boils down to great tours, big summers, unforgettable individual displays. The sort of thing you can put on a book jacket.
On reflection, perhaps the most remarkable thing about this England era is not that it collapsed but that it endured for so long. Eight years. Two tournament wins. This is a nation that has been straightforwardly bad at one-day cricket for most of its history. Entropy, lack of interest, mediocrity and red/white-ball resets come for all England sides in the end. Even now, the reaction is more wry acceptance than genuine chagrin: hello again, old friend. England expects. But crucially, England never really expects for very long.