4:17 PM ETGeorge Dobell at EdgbastonFacebookTwitterFacebook MessengerPinterestEmailprint
Watching England hasn’t always been like this.
For many years, watching them in World Cups has been an experience typified by pain and disappointment. Think of The Oval in 1999, when England made just 103 in pursuit of South Africa’s 225. Or Bridgetown in 2007, when England’s paltry 154 was overhauled for the loss of just one wicket. Or Wellington in 2015, when New Zealand galloped to victory in just 74 balls before the floodlights required turning on. Before this game, England hadn’t won a World Cup knock-out match for 27 years. And they hadn’t won one at home in 40 years. It felt, until this year, as if they had lost almost every big game or crucial passage of play in the tournament this century. Jeez, England supporters have earned this moment.
But this England side is different. This England side – New England, as they should probably be known – would appear to relish those key moments and crucial passages of play. Instead of shrinking on the biggest stage like so many of their predecessors, this team has the skill and the confidence to seize the day.
Take the start of England’s reply here. There was a time, not so long ago, when confronted by a modest target like this, Old England’s openers would have poked and prodded their way through the first few overs. The tension would have built in the face of their timidity. The bowling team’s confidence would have grown, with men around the bat and scoreboard pressure mounting. In time – and it often wasn’t that much time – Old England would have buckled.
Not anymore. A sensibly measured start – New England scored six from their first three overs – gave way to an increasingly assured chase. And that, in turn, gave way to a massacre. At one stage, New England plundered 56 runs in four overs with the cream of Australia’s bowling bearing the brunt of the punishment. Twice Mitchell Starc, one of the great white-ball bowlers in the history of the format, was hit out of the attack and, after five overs, he had conceded 50 runs. Nathan Lyon, who tortured and mocked England in Australia, saw his first ball thumped back over his head for six despite the presence of a long-on and, after four overs, had conceded 36. England weren’t treating the dangermen with respect; they were hunting them down and inflicting revenge attacks.
It goes without saying that the Jonny Bairstow-Jason Roy partnership has been at the heart of England’s progress in this campaign. They have now recorded four century-stands in succession – no partnership has ever previously made more than three in a single tournament – and 11 in 32 ODIs together. These are extraordinary figures even before we recognise they have the highest strike-rates of opening batsmen with more than 1,000 ODI runs in history.
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But bald statistics don’t fully reflect their influence. For the manner in which Bairstow and Roy play – the way they dominate against even the best bowlers – spreads confidence through the England dressing room, drains confidence from the opposition’s and puts them well ahead of any projected target. Against both India and New Zealand, they made pitches on which every other player struggled for their timing look perfect for batting. Long before their partnership was broken here Australia looked beaten and England had a foot in the final.
But while this team may be defined by its aggressive batting, this was a match defined by the bowling in the first half-hour. So well did Chris Woakes and Jofra Archer harness the conditions that, within 37 deliveries, Australia were three down and England had a grip on the match they were never to relent.
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Maybe this was a sign of New England, too. Old England, all too often, would have started cautiously. They would have eased into the game, bowled just back of a length to avoid being driven and looked to keep the score below 40 or so in those opening overs. That is, by and large, the story of England’s bowling in the 2015 World Cup.
Again, not anymore. New England seized the moment. Despite losing the toss, they recognised that if this surface was to offer anything, it would be in the first few overs before the last of the overnight dew disappeared. So instead of easing their way into the day, instead of playing it safe and looking for an economical start, they went for the throat.
Woakes is something of an antihero in this England side. He doesn’t bowl at 90 mph – well not often, anyway – he doesn’t smack the ball into the stands – well not often, anyway – and he doesn’t show any interest in living out his life on social media. But he is a fine cricketer who, given any help from the surface, can trouble the best. Here he had David Warner fencing at one that rose on him off the seam, before bowling Peter Handscomb with a delivery that nipped back through a gate so large you could nickname it Brandenburg. It was a spell that would have pleased James Anderson with a red ball. And that’s high praise.
Archer, meanwhile, is well on his way to stardom. He has played only 13 ODIs but has already taken more wickets (19) in a World Cup campaign than any England bowler has previously managed. Like Glenn McGrath, he bowls so straight and from so close to the stumps that he needs to only gain a fraction of movement to trouble batsmen. And unlike McGrath, he has a change of pace – and extremes of pace – without an obvious change of action. The delivery he produced to dismiss Aaron Finch – quick, accurate and nipping in – was perfect to exploit the weakness of a man who is prone, early in his innings, to falling over a little. The delivery he produced later to dismiss Glenn Maxwell, a knuckle ball that bamboozled the batsmen and left him looking accusingly at the blameless pitch, was a thing of great skill and beauty. In between, Alex Carey was struck a fearsome blow on the helmet. It has been a long, long time since England had a bowler with the range of options – the pace, hostility, skills and intelligence – of Archer.
“They’ve bowlers who hit the seam,” Finch said afterwards. “If there’s anything in the wicket, they will get it out of it. Woakes puts it in the right area time and time again. Archer is getting better and better as he plays more international cricket. In this game, the damage was done with the ball. The game was definitely lost in that first 10 overs.”
This early movement shouldn’t be a total surprise. For many years the domestic knock-out tournament – the NatWest Trophy or Gillette Cup – was dominated by its early (10.30am) starts: teams winning the toss would inevitably insert the opposition and invariably take several wickets in the first few overs when there was still a little moisture in the pitch from overnight dew. Starting at 10.30am – albeit slightly later in the season – was seen a risking the integrity of the competition. There is a reason – and a very good one – that ODIs in England generally do not start before 11am.
But you still have to exploit that help. At Lord’s England – and Archer and Mark Wood, in particular – failed to use more helpful conditions by bowling too short. Here they showed they had learned from those errors and produced spells that defined the game. Even without eye-catching contributions from Ben Stokes or Jos Buttler, this was as complete a performance as England have produced in the tournament. To have played so well against the old enemy in a high-profile knock-out match bodes well for their prospects in the final.
How significant is it that the game will be shown free-to-air in the UK? Well, there’s much to like in this England side. The audacity, the skill, the bravado and the smiles. It is asking a great deal of a team to inspire a new generation of supporters on the back of just one game. But if any side could do it, it is, perhaps, this New England.