That’s right, here’s one in the eye for all those glory-seekers in the upper echelons of the World Cup table, queuing up for their invite to the big dance in Ahmedabad in two weeks’ time. There’s a punier title up for grabs in Pune on Wednesday – so puny, in fact, that it’s not even an official title, unlike the one that an England amateur team claimed at European Cricket Championships in Malaga last month. And look who they beat by eight wickets in the final… none other than the defending champions, Netherlands! Call off this farce! Cricket’s come home already!
In all seriousness, England would be all too happy to walk away from this miserable campaign right now. Saturday’s 33-run loss to Australia finally confirmed the end of their increasingly tenuous hold on the 2019 crown, but they’ve got two further opportunities for humiliation looming – here in Pune, and then against a late-surging Pakistan in Kolkata on Saturday, and they are in quite the psychological bind as they approach them. A brace of victories would be too little, too late for the torched reputation of an ex-world-beating team, but defeat in either could also confirm their elimination from the 2025 Champions Trophy; and that really would be the perfect BOGOF fall from grace.
There could be no better time, therefore, for an upbeat, optimistic and hugely tenacious Netherlands team to face down a side against whom they have a proven reputation on the world stage. Both of their victories in this competition to date, against Bangladesh and South Africa, have showcased a never-say-die spirit (especially in their lower-order batting) that their next opponents have been singularly unable to replicate. And, having already eliminated three other Test nations – West Indies, Ireland and Zimbabwe – simply to emerge from a brutal qualifying tournament in July, they unquestionably have the pedigree, and the recent form, to land another haymaker on a supposedly superior nation.
And so, if desire – desperation almost – is an unquantifiable factor in sporting match-ups, you might almost consider Netherlands to be favourites for this contest – which is a preposterous notion when you consider what happened when these two sides met in Amstelveen 18 months ago, at the start of Matthew Mott’s reign as England’s white-ball coach. But the effortless surety of purpose with which England racked up that world-record 498 for 4 has evaporated, to be replaced by something stale and unfamiliar. “Maybe the writing was on the wall, and we just didn’t see it,” was Moeen Ali’s typically honest assessment this week, as he faced up to the notion that an ageing team had simply curdled on the eve of their final reckoning.
What, then, will it matter to this set of players if they flunk their final assignment in this coming week? Moeen stressed the importance of Champions Trophy qualification for “potentially, the younger players coming in”, but altruism is an unlikely motivational tool if raw ambition couldn’t rouse them in the first place. And besides, if that challenge does prove to be beyond them, their absence would almost certainly be balanced out by a bonus Test tour of the West Indies – it’s not as if the ECB struggles for reasons to fill any given void.
For Netherlands, however, a more existential opportunity has reared its head. Quite apart from the glory of beating England at a(nother) World Cup, Champions Trophy qualification would have the potential to transform their ever-precarious finances, to give them a reason to lock in some long-term sponsors and build through the 2025 event to access the 2027 World Cup beyond. “It adds a massive element to these two games,” Scott Edwards, Netherlands’ captain, told ESPNcricinfo on the eve of the match. And, he added, with England sitting below them in the standings, “it puts us on a little bit of a level-playing field”.
Form guide – England on a losing streak
England LLLLL (last five completed ODIs, most recent first) Netherlands LWLLW
In the spotlight – Jos Buttler and Roelof van der Merwe
In the wake of the Australia defeat, Jos Buttler acknowledged that his catastrophic loss of form had “really hurt us”, but insisted that he hadn’t stopped “believing” in his ability to influence the big moments of England’s campaign. “You guys will give up on me a lot earlier than I’ll give up on myself,” he told the media after that match. And yet, the evidence of his tournament tells another story. It’s not simply the runs that Buttler hasn’t made, or the lack of speed in his scoring rate (106 from 113 balls all told, at 15.14). It’s the lack of surety in his strokeplay that speaks most loudly. His indecision in the channel outside off has resulted in three caught-behinds and one inside-edge onto his stumps out of seven dismissals, and with all of his focus on that weakness, he hasn’t yet produced a single scoop, paddle or reverse sweep – three of the staples of the 360-degree game. In fact, he hasn’t looked this bereft at the crease since his agonising Ashes tour in 2021-22… and that was the last time he ever put himself forward for Test cricket.
No-one epitomises the levels of vein-popping hunger in the Netherlands’ ranks quite like Roelof van der Merwe, one of the most pugnacious competitors ever created. He turns 39 on New Year’s Eve, but still bounds through every contest with an infectious optimism, allied to deep levels of skill and resolve. His stunning catch at point in the T20 World Cup sealed a famous victory over South Africa last year, and he was their heartbeat again as they completed the double in Dharamsala last month. His vital 29 from 19 at No. 9 gave his captain, Edwards, the belief to post a defendable total, before his left-arm spin closed down South Africa’s hopes with 2 for 34. And, as a proven winner with Somerset on the county circuit – including in this year’s T20 Blast – there is nothing about English cricket that holds any fears for him. Particularly at this anxious juncture of his opponents’ evolution.
Team news – Ben Stokes could sit this one out
Mark Wood will miss out with a left knee niggle, after wearing a brace during his exertions against Australia, which means Gus Atkinson could be in line for a recall after his solitary outing against South Africa last month. Brydon Carse, Reece Topley’s stand-in, is another alternative. Meanwhile, Ben Stokes’ various ailments could cause him to sit this one out, now that World Cup qualification is off the table. Either way, Harry Brook is certainly worth of a recall. Quite apart from being the future of the team across formats, he is the only specialist batter in the squad with a strike-rate above 100.
England (probable): 1 Jonny Bairstow, 2 Dawid Malan, 3 Joe Root, 4 Ben Stokes/Harry Brook, 5 Jos Buttler (capt, wk), 6 Moeen Ali, 7 Liam Livingstone, 8 Chris Woakes, 9 David Willey, 10 Gus Atkinson/Brydon Carse, 11 Adil Rashid
Max O’Dowd and Wesley Barresi are likely to get another chance to settle as a new opening pair after the omission of Vikramjit Singh against Afghanistan. Saqib Zulfiqar was the weak link in the bowling attack in that same match, and may make way for fellow legspinner Shariz Ahmad.
Netherlands (possible): 1 Max O’Dowd, 2 Wesley Barresi, 3 Colin Ackermann, 4 Sybrand Engelbrecht, 5 Scott Edwards (capt, wk), 6 Bas de Leede, 7 Logan van Beek, 8 Roelof van der Merwe, 9 Shariz Ahmad, 10 Aryan Dutt, 11 Paul van Meekeren
Pitch and conditions
There have been three World Cup matches to date in Pune, none of them especially close, although the evidence of two unfazed run-chases by India and Afghanistan is that middling scores of 250-odd are insufficient when batting first – South Africa fared rather better in the third game, in putting 357 for 4 on the board in their hefty win against New Zealand. England have some recent experience of this venue, having played three ODIs on their 2020-21 tour of India. They lost the series 2-1, but overhauled an imposing 336 with 39 balls to spare in game two, thanks to a Jonny Bairstow hundred and 99 from 52 from Stokes.
Stats and trivia – unlikely rivalry on the global stage
England have not lost to Netherlands in six previous ODIs, three of which have come at World Cups, in 1996, 2003 and 2011.
In all global tournaments, however, the rivalry is significantly more intense. The teams have met twice more, at the T20 World Cups in 2009 and 2014, where Netherlands pulled off shock victories on each occasion.
Buttler needs another 71 runs to reach 5000 ODI runs, in 151 innings. That, however, would be eight more runs than he has managed in his last six innings of this tournament.
David Willey, who has confirmed his retirement from international cricket at the end of the World Cup, needs five more wickets in a maximum of two games to reach 100 in ODIs.
Bas de Leede, with 11 wickets, has struck more times in this tournament than any of England’s bowlers. Adil Rashid has been England’s best on show, with ten wickets at 30.40, but that mark has been matched by two further Netherlands bowlers, Logan van Beek and Paul van Meekeren, and at better averages too.
England have lost five ODIs in a row, emulating their losing streak from this time last year against Australia and South Africa, as well as previous such streaks in 2011 and 2014. However, they have not lost six in a row since the 2009 home series against Australia, which eventually finished 6-1 after a consolation victory in game seven.
“I’m not quite sure why I’m the man to explain. I think that I’m an assistant coach with the England team.” Carl Hopkinson does his best to justify his status as England’s pre-match talking head.
“England are world champions. In South Africa, where I’m from, there’s a famous saying: ‘Never underestimate a wounded buffalo.” Netherlands bowling coach Ryan van Niekerk isn’t taking England lightly.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket