If the high point of the story of England men’s ODI journey was lifting the World Cup trophy at Lord’s in 2019, the nadir was almost certainly their humiliating group stage exit at the tournament four years previously.
Thumping defeats at the hands of Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka followed by a narrow defeat to Bangladesh saw England depart Oceania with just a pair of wins over Associate nations Scotland and Afghanistan.
Days before the 2015 World Cup began, an England Lions tour to South Africa had come to the end. The white-ball leg of the tour took place shortly after the announcement of England’s 15-man World Cup squad. It was therefore filled with a group of players who would have felt like they had a point to prove.
A significant chunk of that group would go onto become part of the core that were on England’s journey from white-ball also-rans to the best side on the planet. That series saw all of Ben Stokes, Jason Roy, Jonny Bairstow, Sam Billings, Adil Rashid, Liam Plunkett and Mark Wood in action.
England Lions took the series 3-1 against a strong South Africa ‘A’ side that included Kagiso Rababa, Chris Morris, Reeza Hendricks, Dean Elgar, Dane Vilas and Simon Harmer. Throughout the series, there were glimpses of what was to come with the senior side.
Stokes set the standard in the series opener, taking 4-22 in a low-scoring game. In the second encounter, a 24-year-old Roy, who had not yet made his ODI debut, helped power England Lions to 376 from their 50 overs with a 110-ball 141. James Vince, who skippered the Lions that tour, fell one short of a century of his own before cameos from Bairstow and Stokes took England to a score that was unlikely to be chased.
After a washout in the third unofficial ODI, Stokes showed England what they were missing at the World Cup by blasting an unbeaten 86-ball 151 from No. 5 as England piled on another 370-plus score.
England’s first ODI series following that World Cup came against New Zealand, beaten finalists only months earlier. England promptly racked up more than 400 for the first time in their history, with five of those Lions players featuring.
“Most wouldn’t know about that [Lions series],” Billings, who made his England debut in that game, told the Wisden Cricket Weekly Podcast. “But I mean, we don’t all just turn up at international cricket and start whacking it all over the place. That’s the kind of environment where you’ve got to start learning against top-quality opposition. The Lions tours were invaluable for all of us. It was just building that confidence and having that clarity of ‘OK, we’re going to take this on’. And having those players that play that way translated straight away. The team chemistry element going straight from the Lions into that international element definitely helps as well. It eases that process and people feel a lot more comfortable making that step up.”
Billings credited the team management for allowing the second-string side to play with freedom.
“The thing that struck me was that Andy Flower and Thorpey [Graham Thorpe], who were coaches of that Lions team, really drove home that we’d been picked based on how we’ve gone about our business in county cricket and also performance-wise, so just play that way. In the past, you’ve turned up to the Lions and thought, ‘Right, I’ve got to be the perfect player, and I’ve got to play the way that certain other people want me to play’. You think that’s the case when it’s not. There were definitely no conversations saying, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that’. It was completely the opposite, it was very encouraging and very supportive in terms of the way we wanted to go about it.”
There’s little need to remind of what happened next. England went on to lift the men’s Cricket World Cup for the first time, having redefined what was possible with the bat in ODIs, twice breaking the world record for the highest ODI team total in the interim.
“I think it maybe showed a lot of people where we could get to, going ‘right, jeez where can we take this?'” says Billings. “There was a curiosity element. Rather than thinking ‘this is the way we’ve always played’, we were moving the game on.”
England’s 2015 Lions squad:
Ben Stokes, Jason Roy, Jonny Bairstow, Sam Billings, Alex Lees, James Vince, Adam Lyth, Samit Patel, Adil Rashid, Liam Plunkett, Jack Brooks, Tim Bresnan, Boyd Rankin, Mark Wood, Harry Gurney, Stephen Parry
England’s 2015 World Cup squad:
Eoin Morgan, Jos Buttler, Moeen Ali, James Anderson, Gary Ballance, Ian Bell, Ravi Bopara, Stuart Broad, Steve Finn, Alex Hales, Chris Jordan, Joe Root, James Taylor, James Tredwell, Chris Woakes