How England went from being jokes to jocks
England lose their first wicket, the MCG is drunkenly roaring in the early afternoon, and out walks a man who seems like he should be coming out at the innings break to participate in a catch-the-ball contest. Instead, he's nominally the pinch hitter, though he looks more pinch than hit.
The small guy in the large ground sent out to smack big shots on that January day in 1999 was Mark Ealham. He hit one six, by accident, a top edge over the keeper's head off Glenn McGrath, ended up with 21 from 19 balls, and England were bowled out for 178, which Australia chased down in the 40th over with nine wickets left.
Ealham was a friendly looking medium pacer who barely hit the ball off the square in ODI cricket. He was an allrounder at the same time that Lance Klusener was murdering yorkers and changing limited-overs batting. Klusener looked like he could have eaten Ealham, only pausing to spit out the bones.
With the bat in ODIs, Ealham averaged 17 at a strike rate of 65 and never made over 45. But despite his lack of pace and height, he had incredible skill with the ball. In the era Ealham played, the global average ODI run rate was 4.72 runs per over (England scored at 4.49, Zimbabwe at 4.58) and so his economy rate of 4.08 looks quite good. But away from home, Ealham's record changed as he went for 4.48 runs an over and his average ballooned to 48.
Ealham is a perfect example of English ODI cricket at any time during the '90s and early-2000s. He was essentially an exquisite county player who took 643 first-class wickets because he was ideally suited to the peculiar conditions of ODIs in England. Ealham needed that little bit of help, that movement off the pitch or in the air, to make up for the other attributes he didn't have. That grey cloud that assisted him, and many other England players, also helped keep their cricket in the dark for generations.
It is partly the conditions, and England's love of traditions, that allowed for Mike Atherton to play 54 ODIs at a strike rate of 58 and Michael Vaughan to average 27 with a strike rate of 68. It might be a stretch to blame the clouds alone for the many eccentric English ODI players, like Mark Alleyne, Ian Austin, Ronnie Irani, Mal Loye, and Paul Nixon - players created as cartoon versions of what a person becomes if they spend too much time in county cricket.
One-day cricket in England is different from that in other places. Of the top 100 ODI totals up until the 2015 World Cup, six have been made in England, just one more than the number made in Johannesburg. Of the modern World Cups, the 1999 one was certainly the most bowler-dominated. Among the 100 highest first-innings totals in World Cup history, '99 had four while '96 had eight. The last Champions Trophy in England was won a spell of fast bowling by Ishant Sharma after a rain-reduced match turned into a scrappy T20 match.
That is probably one major reason why on the list of all-time highest one-day scores, England's first entry is Alex Hales, ranked 40. Ahead of him are 12 Indian scores, three from Zimbabwe and one each from Scotland and Ireland. Rohit Sharma alone has three entries in the list before we come to England's highest scorer. Hales' 171 went past Robin Smith's 167 not out, which had stood as an England record for 23 years. Rarely has a record represented the mood of cricket more. Smith's score was made in the early '90s, where English ODI cricket had remained till recently.
A year before Smith's knock, Ian Botham played his last ODI.
Scattered around the press box in Nagpur, India, are photos of some of the best cricketers who ever lived. One of those photographs is of Botham, his caption reading: "a flamboyant allrounder but erratic performer in one-day cricket".
Botham is one of the greatest cricketers England has ever produced, but when it comes to limited overs, even the Nagpur press box feels comfortable trolling him. There is something wrong with English ODI cricket when Botham, a man seemingly made for ODI cricket, isn't seen as great at it.
When the Cricket Monthly asked a jury of cricket experts to come up with their greatest ever ODI players, Botham was the only Englishman who got a vote. Despite the number of times the Botham dancing clip appears on Sky, he wasn't a one-day legend. He never took a five-wicket haul, never made a score over 79.
If you compare him to the other great allrounders of his time, Kapil Dev and Imran Khan had better records and led their teams to World Cup glory. Richard Hadlee also had a better record. Botham's nearest neighbours, statistically, are Kapil and Lance Cairns.
Cairns was a quality cricketer, but if potentially your greatest cricketer is a slightly better Lance Cairns, there's a problem.
Not that Botham is the undisputed best English ODI player anyway. On cricketweb's forum in 2011, they announced a vote on the best 50 ODI players of all time. On that list was one Englishman: Neil Fairbrother, at number 47. As one of cricket's first closers - he was not out in over a quarter of his chases - Fairbrother was well-loved by cricket fans. Missing from that list is Allan Lamb, who, in 1987, played out a Brathwaite-lite over against Bruce Reid, needing 18 to win and scoring the runs off the first five balls: 2, 4, 6, 2, 4. Lamb averaged 39 with a strike rate of 75, which was a pretty damn good record for the time.
There have also been some other pretty decent players - Marcus Trescothick, Graham Thorpe, Darren Gough, Nick Knight, Paul Collingwood, Robin Smith, the Hollioakes - who have all had quality records or amazing patches, but not one of them is an ODI great. And while greatness is largely subjective, it would be hard to call Fairbrother, Lamb, Andy Flintoff or Kevin Pietersen undisputed ODI greats either.
But it isn't just England's lack of great players that points to an underperforming nation. The only major Test-playing nations with a lower all-time win-loss ODI record than England are Sri Lanka and New Zealand. In the '90s, England's win-loss record was 0.857, with only New Zealand behind them. In the 2000s, it was 0.900, with only West Indies behind them. The last time they were any good at ODIs was in the 1980s (when they had the second-best record after West Indies) - the period just before ODIs came together tactically and were finally taken seriously. Basically, they haven't been good at ODI cricket since ODI cricket has been good.
There have been 18 World Cups and Champions Trophies, a third of which have been played in England, and still no wins.
It is also probably true that ODI cricket isn't as big in England as it has become in other countries, where there has been a magic time when ODIs took off and went past Test cricket in popularity, or at least where they were taken seriously. In England, limited-overs cricket still has less respect than it does in any other cricket nation, and their team has often looked and played that way. An afterthought, frivolous nonsense, not something a real cricket fan would be caught worrying about.
Then there are the playing conditions. England were still playing 55-overs-a-side ODIs into the mid-'90s, well after the world had well and truly moved on. They also played 60 overs for a while, because why not? In domestic cricket they were playing a 40-over competition until very recently. Not to mention the fact they did not convert from whites to coloured clothing until everyone else had.
England's ODI cricket is a freak show of the bizarre: possessing a style of the game almost always out of time, lacking greatness, embarrassing in big tournaments, and having spent two decades losing more than winning. That grey cloud has been hanging low for a long time.
Last year a book, 28 Days' Data, was published about England's ODI fortunes. It does its best to be positive and optimistic, but its title is a zombie film parody, and the subtitle contains the word "troubled".
The word "data" in the title comes from a misheard quote from the coach at England's disastrous 2015 World Cup campaign, where they were destroyed by the two finalists, and eventually kicked out by Bangladesh. But for all the miscommunication, they seemed like a team obsessed with the magic par score. In that tournament, if you had seen them play against Scotland and make over 300 without ever putting their foot down, you could tell they weren't rage-fuelled zombies; just pre-programmed humanoids told what the par score was and loath to risk any natural flair to go beyond it. People laughed when they were kicked out and then soon forgot about them. That has been the story of England since the 1992 World Cup final.
But something did change with them. When South Africa scored 229 at the Wankhede in the 2016 World T20, it felt like too big a score, even in a tournament where many teams had chased well. But England did it and created history with a top seven which consisted of five players from the 2015 World Cup squad. The other two, Jason Roy and Ben Stokes, had also played ODIs for England.
At that World T20, the two best teams were England and West Indies. They made it through to the final in very different ways. One was cavalier, backed natural talent and let their players express themselves; the other had a very systematic plan and quite a few one-dimensional specialists. Because of the clichés about both teams, if you didn't follow the tournament closely, you'd think it was West Indies who were cavalier and England bookish, but the opposite was true. With England spending over two decades playing ODI cricket as if it was an advanced algebra exam they hadn't studied for, why would anyone ever believe they were the freewheeling team? But they were. This time the England batsmen just went out there and played their natural game and it took them to within a Carlos Brathwaite over of winning the whole thing.
They have also been doing it in ODI cricket since the last World Cup. They win and hit now. Any one of their current innings is more exciting than entire seasons of their ODI cricket of old. They have won six of their last eight series*.
Even the English pitches are playing their part. ODIs have ceased to be grey bowling days on greenish pitches that make attacking batting look ridiculous. The tracks have dried and become brown, are now made for runs, and those grey clouds don't seem to stop massive scores anymore.
There are many reasons for this. The coach they appointed after their poor World Cup was Trevor Bayliss, a limited-overs specialist who had coached teams to IPL and Big Bash titles and Sri Lanka to a World Cup final. Andrew Strauss as director of England cricket has also tried to make white-ball cricket as important as red. And instead of looking for formulas and following other nations, they seem to just be playing to their strengths, which is hitting the ball hard and attacking with the bat right down to No. 11 with their incredible, endless supply of allrounders.
For years every good period of English ODI cricket came because they had tried to copy another team's style and had done it just well enough not to be a real threat or a total embarrassment. Now they are doing it their way: a mixture of planning, data and freedom that is all theirs.
Since the last World Cup, England have been destroying the boring middle overs. From over 11 to over 40 (min 200 balls), there are only 11 players in world cricket with a strike rate over 100, and three of them are from England (Roy, Hales and Jos Buttler). They also have four more in the 90s (Root, Eoin Morgan, Stokes and Jonny Bairstow). They score over half a run per over more than their closest rival, India, and their average run rate of 6.02 is a clear one run above the global average for that period.
At the death (last ten overs, min 100 balls), the best strike rate in the game currently, by a fair distance, is held by Buttler at 200. At No. 7 on the list, with a healthy 157, is Stokes, and even Chris Woakes is rocking along at 121. They are the No. 1 scoring team at the death, with 8.48 an over, and again, they are a clear run more than the global average team in that time.
In 119 ODIs from the start of 2010 to the end of the 2015 World Cup, England passed 300 11 times, only once in the second innings. In the 41 games since the World Cup, they have passed it 20 times, five times in the second innings.
And they have passed 400 twice. Hell, they scored 444 in one match, in England. They are not the England of legend. They are a young attacking team that has been killing ODI cricket over the last few years. And thanks to the way cricket is run, they are about to host their second straight Champions Trophy, with perhaps their best ever ODI team, and certainly their best ever ODI batting line-up.
Forget the numbers, just watch them play. Roy attacks the ball like it has been shit-posting about him online; Hales' long levers loft the ball so sweetly; Joe Root is the complete batsman for all casual and formal get-togethers; Stokes hits the ball like it's a dressing-room locker; Moeen Ali's timing is supernatural; and for some England fans, Buttler is a holy figure. This list doesn't include Bairstow because he can't get in the team. Even the tail has sweet strikers, big clunkers and energetic enthusiasts. This is an exciting team, slap-happy and loving it.
Their bowlers are not quite as strong as the batsmen, but they have an incredibly well-balanced attack. Pace from Plunkett, swing and seam from Stokes, Jake Ball, David Willey and Woakes, wristspin from Rashid that spins one way and fingerspin from Moeen that spins the other. Moeen's bowling average since the last World Cup is 56, but his economy rate of 5.2 is top-class. When you break down the other bowling records, Woakes and Willey go at under five an over in the Powerplay, while Stokes (7.2) and Rashid (a sensational 6.8) do well at the death.
But the most important aspect of their bowling is how well and how deep it bats. That Stokes and Moeen can bat in the top seven means that if England want, they can go into a game with seven frontline bowling options and still bat until 11. Their top order can crush the middle overs and feel safe in the knowledge that there is always another batsman to come. They have first-class tons from go to woe. The talent could be utilised in the safely constructed manner that England have often used in limited overs previously, but instead, it's a glorious scream of natural batting talent until the innings is over.
In the past, England ODI cricket has been about Botham dancing, Allan Lamb scoring 18 in one over, the Mark Ealham years, the search for a riskless algorithm, and English conditions dictating what happens. Now they pick a bunch of hitters who keep on hitting. With this team, and a home Champions Trophy and a home World Cup to follow, they have the chance to right all that was wrong with English cricket for as long as most of current side has been alive.
When the Champions Trophy starts and a wicket falls, England won't be sending out a battling county pro trying to battle the world's best. They will be sending out one of the world's best hitters. There have been lots of rays of sunshine in England's white-ball cricket, only for the clouds to come back over. But this time they have the team to hit the ball into the clouds. If they keep hitting as they have, in a couple of weeks, it might be the brightest day England have ever had in coloured clothing.
*All stats updated till before the start of the England-South Africa ODI series
Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber