“It’s Coming Home / It’s Coming Home / It’s Coming / The Royal London One-Day International Series is Coming Home.” So the fans didn’t sing as they milled out of The Kia Oval on Thursday night after England took a 2-0 lead to wrap up the pelican-shaped silverware, nor in the Bristol showers on Sunday afternoon as the third ODI meandered towards a no-result.
Sri Lanka’s limited-overs tour has struggled to capture the attention of the wider public – perhaps no surprise with Euro 2020 and Wimbledon among the events running simultaneously – and this soggy climax felt like a mercy killing. The lack of a spectacle has been a disappointment to the many fans returning for their first live international cricket for two years, but it has demonstrated how the World Cup Super League and the context it provides has changed the nature of bilateral ODI series for good.
England were so ruthless and clinical – both virtues for Gareth Southgate’s side, but indirect criticisms of Eoin Morgan‘s – that large swathes of this series were pretty dull. They won the toss and opted to bowl in all three games, and Sri Lanka’s powerplay scores – 47 for 3, 47 for 4 and 45 for 4 – demonstrate that each match was over as a contest within 10 overs as their top order crumbled against the swinging new ball, with Sam Curran, Chris Woakes and David Willey all wreaking havoc. Boring, boring England, thrashing Sri Lanka without breaking sweat – how things have changed.
There were legitimate grievances with England’s stone-cold, intransigent approach to the third ODI: the opportunities to have a look at George Garton or give a further opportunity to Liam Livingstone, or to test themselves by choosing to set a total ahead of a bigger test against Pakistan rather than chasing for the third time in a row, were missed. Pulling Tom Banton out of the Vitality Blast to run drinks just as he had found form looks like a strange decision, too, even if the need to have Covid or concussion replacements on hand and in the bubble necessitates larger squads than usual.
But the uncompromising decision-making was rooted in sound logic, and a reminder that while cricket’s regular existential crises lead to concerns about the product and package offered up, England’s primary concern is simple: winning as many games as possible, with automatic qualification for the 2023 World Cup the tangible reward. In the era of the Super League, the result of a bilateral series carries even less weight than it used to, and the fact a game like this is still mis-sold as a dead rubber does not change the number of points on offer in the qualification stakes.
England have already let 10 points slip by taking their eye off the ball in the final game of one series, against Ireland last summer, and were in no mood to do it again before the weather intervened. They came into this series with four wins and five defeats from their nine Super League games to date and while there is no real jeopardy around their qualification for 2023 – the top seven teams plus India as hosts go through automatically, and they are top of the nascent league table – there is enough to keep them honest.
Sri Lanka, meanwhile, have to scrap for every point. The five they gained here meant they leapfrogged South Africa and Zimbabwe into the lofty heights of 11th place, having played three times as many games, and the draw has been particularly unkind to them: they play neither Ireland nor Netherlands in this cycle, the two teams that look most beatable.
The result was that Morgan opted to bowl with an eye on the weather, made only one change after hinting there would be several, and went for the kill by posting attacking fields throughout – there were three slips in during the 26th over, and four in the 33rd. It was not much of a spectacle, but the blame for that should fall on Sri Lanka’s dire efforts with the bat throughout this tour, rather than on England. Nathan Leamon, their white-ball analyst, writes in his new book Hitting Against The Spin that a winning record in the years leading up to a World Cup is a key predictor for success in the tournament itself: picking a full-strength team and developing a winning habit is not to be sniffed at as an idea.
And much as it is easy to clamour for the bench-strength to be tested, it is much harder to tell someone they’re sitting one out. The team England put out on Sunday was filled with players keen to find some form before Pakistan’s arrival, many of whom have been short on cricket since the IPL’s early finish or through their own injuries: good luck telling Jonny Bairstow or Sam Curran – both rested during the India Test series to keep them fresh for the home straight ahead of the T20 World Cup – that they are wearing high-vis so the back-ups can have a go.
Just as the World Test Championship has changed Test cricket – for evidence, see England and New Zealand’s half-strength teams last month in a series that wasn’t part of it – the Super League has already had an impact on ODIs. Of course, that might not be a positive in this series, where the gulf between the sides is so big that England experimenting would have made for a better spectacle.
But as with the WTC, the final rounds – when the risk of having to play in a World Cup Qualifier will seem significantly more real to sides that have been in cruise control – will prove that this structure and context makes the Super League worthwhile, making qualification for global tournaments a meritocracy in the way that an opaque rankings system cannot. In England’s case, as with their footballers, a few dull wins in qualifying will be long forgotten if they succeed in the tournament itself.