ENGLAND VS PAKISTAN, 2019
Stokes finished unbeaten on 71 in the run chase. © AFP
There it was. The thing England fans feared most.
It came from nowhere. They were 201 for one in the 28th over, with 139 left and plenty of time to get them. Jason Roy had completed his eighth ODI century from just 75 balls, making a mockery of the short boundary away to the Smith-Cooper stand with flat pull shots and an inside-out lofted drive that took him from 95 to 101.
The hosts go into the 2019 World Cup not just as favourites but as a group of players who have changed the way 50-over cricket works. Some lament that scores have shot up over the last four years, with the very limits of batting reimagined. But no one in their right mind would have thought English batsman, governed by years of tedious conservatism, would be at the forefront of such a revolution.
But while the approach on the field has changed, the fear in the stands remain. Being an England fan conditions you to not just temper expectations but live in constant fear that every high signals an imminent, potentially cataclysmic low. That free bit of tiramisu? Laced with laxatives. Oh and that cute puppy over there? It’s a cat mate.
Fans of such gallows humour had their fill over the last two weeks, as England fine-tuned their preparations with big chases and impressive individual performances. But while a handful of solid performances in last year’s football World Cup had the nation believing “It’s Coming Home”, cricket’s equivalent support base were tentatively peering around the corner looking to see where the next banana skin lay.
It was 20 for six against South Africa at Lord’s two years ago. It was eight for five at Adelaide at the end of January in 2018. Most jarring – and the reason why fans think the dream of a first 50-over World Cup title will come crashing down in the knock-out stages – it was the Champions Trophy semi-final defeat in 2017 against this very Pakistan side. And now, it was this.
Roy triggered the collapse, gloving down the leg side but with his part very much played. By the time he had removed his pads and sat down to watch his teammates build on his good work, bedlam had ensued.
Not for the first time this series, Joe Root tried to be too aggressive and chipped to a fielder in the ring. Then the key wicket of Jos Buttler – a duck from two balls – was gifted to Imad Wasim, who might have feared the worst sending down a leg side full toss. Square leg was as surprised as the bowler to be offered such a tame catch. Even given Pakistan’s dire standards in the field, it was undroppable.
Moeen then did what Moeen sometimes does and aired one to mid on. With that, three wickets had fallen in 16 balls: 201 for one was now 216 for five. The game in the balance. The script flipped. The pessimists on their way to being satiated.
Yet, something stirred. Something small, but something worthwhile.
You see, this England team are the most self-aware they could be. Almost all of them are active on social media so appreciate the fickle nature of fandom. They also appreciate they need not be hamstrung by the limitations of English cricket past as they drag everyone with them into English cricket present. While we’re here – The Hundred is supposed to be the enticer to English cricket’s future.
Ben Stokes had been in from the dismissal for Roy. He struggled to get going: each wicket at the other end heaped more on the allrounder, who hadn’t been called on to bowl more than four overs and had batted once, for 37, in his previous three ODIs having come off a dour IPL in which he had scored just 123 runs from nine innings.
He lamented every mistimed shot and clout that hit a fielder. And witnessing this turmoil was to endure and, well, expect failure was along the way. Yet, Stokes kept going, and in came Tom Curran to find 31 from somewhere when the ask, with eight overs to go, had been 74.
By the time Curran departed, 22 was required from the last 16 balls. The crowd was tense, waiting for another wicket – of Stokes, really – and bracing themselves for introspection of how, why and where England derailed.
Perhaps on another day the hosts would not have survived. Pakistan’s ground fielding was slapstick and they did leave runs out in the middle. Joe Denly’s five overs were only taken for 27 and Babar Azam, as majestic as his century was to watch, featured a distinctive slow-down as he approached three figures.
“As strange as it sounds, I didn’t think 340 particularly felt such a huge score,” said Buttler as stand-in captain at the post-match press conference. He’s right considering the dimensions of the ground and the capabilities of the batting line-up afforded to him, but at the turn of the middle order collapse, 340 was as distant as it ever has been.
Stokes saw the side to victory, one that will resonate beyond this series win claimed against Pakistan. A better side might not have let them off the hook, but even an England side of six months ago may not have emerged on top in such a situation. That fact alone ahead of a huge couple of months is one to savour.
England are favourites for this World Cup, and for good reason. Step out from behind the sofa and embrace it.