Cricket World Cup 2023: England defeat by South Africa shows signs of golden era ending

The end of an era is rarely pretty.

This may not be the day all hope was lost but it feels like the one where the walls came crumbling down.

England’s rebirth in one-day cricket was fuelled by a wish to banish the horrors of their early World Cup exit in 2015.

The golden period that has followed has taken in the heights of world titles at Lord’s and Melbourne but is now at risk of ending in similarly embarrassing fashion.

Saturday’s 229-run defeat by South Africa, England’s heaviest in one-day internationals, had all of the pain of that night in Adelaide eight years ago.

In fact, it was strangely similar to the darkest days of Ashes tours gone by.

The 2017-18 loss down under ended with Joe Root having to rise from his hospital bed to put up the final defence.

Here in Mumbai, with England having been suckered in at the toss – there’s another for your Ashes bingo card – the medical centres will have watched with interest.

England subjected themselves to the subcontinent sweatbox and watched their World Cup dreams begin to melt away.

Adil Rashid was off the field with an upset stomach before the game began and Reece Topley followed in the seventh over with a suspected broken finger.

Both returned, Rashid bent double on more than one occasion during his spell, but when David Willey writhed with cramp as Heinrich Klaasen brutally thrashed a 61-ball century England looked a team beaten.

Had one more in navy blue gone down, former England bowler Steven Finn might have been summoned from the Test Match Special commentary box for a comeback six-and-a-half years after his last cap, dodgy knees or not.

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With every passing over, England’s fortunes spiralled further out of control.

England made setting targets of 400 their trademark. Now they are on the receiving end.

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Mark Wood, who sent down seven wicketless overs for 76, joined Chris Woakes as an Ashes saviour turned white-ball scattergun in the space of three months.

Woakes had already been dropped for this match, such were his struggles in the first three games. Wood now cannot be far behind as England chase their tails.

In four games England have picked every member of their 15-man squad, going from a side packed with all-rounders and a deep batting line-up to six specialist batters and Willey at number seven.

In truth, this defeat has been months in the making.

The 2019 win came after four meticulous years of planning – an XI fine tuned with bat and ball so that dominating become second nature.

This campaign has been hectic from the moment it began, exemplified by leaving Harry Brook out of a squad presented as the World Cup party in August, only to call him up in place of Jason Roy after all four weeks later.

Jofra Archer was named as a travelling reserve but now, having arrived in India three games in, is on his way home after five days and two training sessions.

World Cup-winning former captain Eoin Morgan returned to the UK from his TV duties in India this week for the birth of his second child. A new baby won’t be the only thing giving him sleepless nights.

Haphazard is being kind.

Jos Buttler’s side have spent each passing day talking about trying to summon the glory days for one last hurrah but instead look more like England white-ball teams of old.

Jonny Bairstow and Dawid Malan, fine players in their own right, look a shadow of the swashbuckling partnership Bairstow formed with Roy.

Ben Stokes has been dragged out of retirement and now he has recovered from an injured hip looks to be one of the better athletes in a team fraying at its ageing seams.

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When Stokes’ Test side went 2-0 down in the Ashes, the all-rounder described it as the “perfect position” for his team.

Now Buttler’s England find themselves in the same place, needing to win every game to achieve their goal.

England played three almost perfect Tests in the summer yet still did not secure the urn and, where the Test team had given reasons for optimism in defeats at Edgbaston and Lord’s, this side has shown little.

After three defeats from four, victory against Sri Lanka on Thursday in Bangalore does not look a given, never mind the all-conquering India and resurgent Australia that follow.

If England’s slide does continue, jobs will soon be on the line, even with credit in the bank from last year’s T20 World Cup win.

Buttler looks secure as captain, there are few alternatives for starters, but does he have another four-year cycle in him amid the lure of the franchise world?

He has cut a dejected figure when fronting up after defeats in Ahmedabad, Delhi and Mumbai.

Coach Matthew Mott joked this week of wanting a job swap with Brendon McCullum, the man who has led England’s Test revolution alongside.

McCullum has been in India this week but while some players might appreciate one of his confidence-boosting pep talks he is here solely on business, selling New Zealand lamb to hotels.

Right now those sheep aren’t the only things being sent to the slaughter.

England will tell themselves their best has come when their backs are against the wall, whether in the Ashes or in their run to victory in 2019 where they won four matches in succession to claim the title.

This, though, feels like a whole other level.

It took four years to complete the transformation from 2015 embarrassment to world champions.

England have four weeks to repeat it.

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