By the time Jonny Bairstow top-edged his sweep off Keshav Maharaj out to David Miller at deep midwicket, confirming England’s joint-worst T20I defeat of all-time, the stands at the Ageas Bowl were half-empty. Supporters had given up on England’s hopes long before, preferring to beat the traffic and get home for the second half of the Euro 2022 final than watching a grim conclusion to a one-sided game.
It was a moment that summed up England’s white-ball summer. Everything Bairstow has touched turned to gold this year but even he could not rescue them in the series decider, scrapping his way to an unusually scratchy 27 off 29 balls with only two boundaries, as wickets tumbled at the other end; he has scored at a higher strike rate in half of his Test innings this summer.
Since Eoin Morgan stepped down as captain, England have won only four games and lost nine across ODI and T20I cricket; for the first time since 2013, they failed to win a home limited-overs series. They will not play another T20 international before selecting their squad for the T20 World Cup in mid-September and it is increasingly difficult to see them lifting that trophy in Australia.
England are not used to losing T20Is. Between June 2018 and July 2021, they won 10 of their 13 bilateral series and lost only two, but since the World Cup last year it has become a habit. They have lost all three of their T20I series and since beating Sri Lanka in Sharjah at last year’s World Cup, they have won four and lost nine.
Roy’s aggregate of 76 off 98 balls from six innings leaves him looking increasingly vulnerable, and he desperately needs a strong season in the Hundred to prove he is still worth his place in the side. His latest in a succession of slow trudges off came at the Ageas Bowl on Sunday after an innings of 17 out of 18, four of which came through overthrows, and Phil Salt is waiting in the wings for an opportunity.
England’s real issue has been their bowling: South Africa’s total of 191 for 5 was the second-lowest total that England have conceded in their six T20Is this summer
“We never imposed ourselves,” Buttler said. “We never managed to put pressure back on the opposition and that timidness is the thing I’m frustrated with the most. As a team, we want to be renowned for being brave and taking risks. We haven’t performed as we’d have liked with the bat through the summer, so maybe the confidence takes a bit of a dent in those situations.”
But England’s real issue has been their bowling: remarkably, South Africa’s total of 191 for 5 was the second-lowest total that England have conceded in their six T20Is this summer. Clearly, their batters have struggled, but they have regularly been chasing enormous targets which have demanded attacking shots from the outset.
At various points over the last two years, England have struggled to take wickets with the new ball and to contain at the death, but this summer they have been uncharacteristically impotent in the middle overs, taking only 14 wickets while leaking 10.2 runs an over between the start of the 7th over and the end of the 16th.
Their spinners have conceded 11.5 runs per over across their six games, and their seamers’ plans have often been overly defensive: when Sam Curran was bowling cutters into the pitch from around the wicket, his only job seemed to be controlling the rate against a South Africa side who were happy to consolidate before launching at the back end.
“We haven’t managed to take wickets as much as we would have liked in those phases,” Buttler admitted. “Breaking partnerships is a big part of controlling the rate in white-ball cricket. That’s where as a captain, you reflect on what you could have done better.”
Clearly, injuries have been a major issue. Jofra Archer, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood, Olly Stone, Saqib Mahmood and Tom Curran have all missed the entire white-ball summer, while Tymal Mills’ toe injury ruled him out of the South Africa series. Chris Jordan, Richard Gleeson, David Willey and Reece Topley have shown glimpses, but nobody conceded less than eight runs an over across the summer.
And there is no guarantee that any of the names on their long injury list will be fully fit when England name their World Cup squad. “You’ve got who’s available,” Buttler said. “Injuries are part and parcel of the game. You’ve got to be excited about the guys you have around and they have put in some performances.”
Strange things can happen in T20 World Cups: Australia spent the build-up to their 2021 triumph losing to Bangladesh and West Indies and were hammered by England at the tournament itself, before a streak of four wins in a row won them the title. It would be foolish to rule out England doing the same – but as Miller settled underneath the catch that sealed South Africa’s win, it was difficult to envisage.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98