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England’s production line of multi-dimensional cricketers is unrivalled and a cause for celebration

Yas Rana by Yas Rana
@Yas_Wisden 4 minute read

A driving force behind England’s recent success across formats has been their prolific production of multi-dimensional cricketers, writes Yas Rana.

At the 2019 World Cup, India fielded arguably the most formidable top three in the history of ODI cricket. Between the 2015 and 2019 World Cups, Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli all averaged above 45 in the format at a strike rate above 95. Kohli and Rohit were the top two run-scorers globally across the World Cup cycle; Kohli, preposterously, sustained an average of 78 and a strike rate of 98 between the two tournaments.

All three were titans of the ODI game. You’d be forgiven, however, for forgetting the identity of the man who was billed to bat at four for India in a third of their games – Vijay Shankar. It is rare for an India white-ball player to be a relative unknown at a global tournament given the exposure and reach of the IPL, but there was Shankar, a 28-year-old batting all-rounder with a grand total of two List A centuries and two IPL wickets to his name slotted in between Kohli and MS Dhoni.


Shankar controversially pipped Ambati Rayudu, a man who averaged 47.05 in ODIs, to a spot in India’s 15-man squad. Although he only bowled in one World Cup game, Shankar’s perceived three-dimensionality was given as the primary reason for his selection. In his sole outing with the ball, Shankar claimed the wickets of Imam-ul-Haq and Sarfaraz Ahmed in a convincing win over Pakistan.

Shankar was eventually replaced in the India XI by a young Rishabh Pant. With just one bowling option in Hardik Pandya in their top six, India used just five bowlers in each of their final four World Cup games. Essentially, without another all-rounder like Shankar in the top five, they were forced to field a lopsided team, limiting themselves to five viable bowling options with minimal leeway if things go awry. When England launched into Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal at Edgbaston, India had no one else to turn to. They were forced to bowl out both spinners whose 20 overs eventually cost India 160 runs.

Having two bowling options in the top seven is essential in ODI cricket. It gives a team options in the field and makes them harder to predict. In fact, every World Cup winning side since West Indies in 1975 has fielded at least two genuine bowling options in their top seven, often three. And as the threshold for the ability of a part-timer has risen, having a top-order batter also capable of being a frontline bowler is an increasingly rare type of player to produce.

Which brings us to England in 2023. The reigning world champions have won just two of their eight completed ODIs since Ben Stokes’ retirement from the format in July last year. A certified cross-format phenom, Stokes’ relative utility as a cricketer is perhaps highest in ODI cricket where there is an even greater premium on top-six batters who can bowl.

The dilemma for England right now is that without Stokes, they do not want to be drawn into the trap India fell into in 2019 by fielding a side with only five realistic bowling options. To accommodate a sixth bowler, England need two bowling options in their top seven – they have so far done this by moving Moeen Ali up to six, and fielding another all-rounder at seven.

Of the available all-rounders, Moeen’s batting returns of late are more suited to seven, while Liam Livingstone is far from established as a top-six ODI batter himself. No. 6 would also likely be a spot too high for the likes of Chris Woakes and Sam Curran. For long, England’s success in ODI cricket has hinged on absurd batting depth, and while their lower order is vastly superior to their competitors, without Stokes, they are suddenly light in the middle.

For once, England are desperate for an all-rounder, a problem they rarely experience. The unfortunately timed high-performance review into English men’s cricket focused on the types of cricketers that England doesn’t produce. However, overseas Ashes debacles aside, this has been a relatively successful era for English men’s cricket and it’s worth dwelling on a type of cricketer England does produce in abundance, and which has been a driving force behind that success – the all-rounder.

Going through England’s landmark wins over the past few years, a fundamental part of each success is the strategic flexibility they are afforded because of the all-round talent they have, not just through pure all-rounders, but in the number of players who are quietly effective in their secondary discipline.

At the 2019 World Cup, England’s flexibility worked both ways. With Stokes and Woakes in the top seven, England had six frontline bowling options and that’s before you even consider the more than capable part-time off-spin of Joe Root. As well as that bowling depth, they had extraordinary batting depth, too, with Liam Plunkett, Jofra Archer, Adil Rashid and Mark Wood batting at eight, nine, ten and eleven, depth that gives the top order that extra license to attack with that safety blanket under the seat if they need it.

While England had Rashid at No. 10 – famously a scorer of 10 first-class hundreds – New Zealand had Trent Boult there in the 2019 final. England’s batting depth was far from normal.

England’s all-round flexibility was perhaps most obvious at the 2022 World Cup. In the final, England fielded a side with seven frontline bowling options and a tail of Curran, Woakes, Chris Jordan, and Rashid, in that order. Pakistan’s No.8 in the final, Mohammad Wasim, would almost certainly be England’s No.11.

The abundance of bowling options meant that Moeen’s 0ff-breaks were deployed only when the matchups were favourable, and bowlers who excelled in some phases and not others, like Woakes, were not forced to bowl in parts of the innings where they are less strong. Despite decent returns, Woakes only bowled his full allocation of overs twice across the tournament, a luxury he would not be afforded in teams with fewer all-round options.

While most teams desperately scramble for all-rounders, England had them coming out of their ears. Runners-up Pakistan had seven bowling options as well, but as already established, had an extremely weak tail, a reality their top order would have been aware of, and at some level, had to rein in their approach to some degree.

Beaten semi-finalists India had six bowling options – one fewer than England – and a significantly weaker lower order, with R Ashwin at seven; England’s No. 7 was Liam Livingstone.

The same is true in Test cricket. In their historic 3-0 victory in Pakistan in late 2022, the number of all-rounders at England’s disposal helped them pack the side with bowling options in their quest to take 20 wickets on the most lifeless of surfaces. Will Jacks bowled 46.3 overs across the Rawalpindi Test match, taking six of England’s 20 wickets. The number of bowling options above him in the batting order – Stokes, Livingstone, Root – undoubtedly enabled the selection of a player at eight who has made a name for himself more as a batter.

Even the multifaceted skillsets of a player like Ollie Pope, who batted three and kept wicket in that Test match, allowed England to pack their XI with an army of players who could make serious contributions with both bat and ball. Pope’s own multifacetedness is indicative of another recent trend, the proliferation of English batters who are also capable wicketkeepers. Of the 50 players to represent England in international cricket last year, nine would be considered options to keep wicket.

The all-rounder has always been central to the DNA of English cricket. England’s most iconic cricketers – Grace, Botham, Stokes – have been all-rounders, but even aside from those marquee names, English cricket produces multi-dimensional cricketers more consistently than any other nation. Players of the calibre of Botham and Stokes are rare – England still do produce all-rounders of that ilk as often as any nation – but it is the constant stream of players adept at contributing in both disciplines that sets England apart. Even Rehan Ahmed, England’s shiny new toy, has a first-class century as well as a Test five-for to his name six months out from his nineteenth birthday.

England’s quadrennial dose of navel-gazing that follows each overseas Ashes defeat seeks to identify all that is wrong with the English game. It is only right that in times of relative success, that the aspects that should be positively recognised are celebrated too.


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