England's journey to Cricket World Cup glory will be defined by final outcome
As it was in the beginning, so shall it be in the end. Four years on from the start of English cricket's great white-ball paradigm shift, Eoin Morgan's band of buccaneers return to Lord's today for the World Cup final. In the process, they find themselves facing the most poignant of opposition.
Through that period of revamp and clearing out, it is New Zealand who have been a significant constant for this new model England. First as an inspiration, then as a yardstick of progress and now as the final obstacle in the path of this brilliantly planned and executed sporting project.
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Four years ago it was New Zealand who induced what future white-ball historians might refer to as The Event, that moment of rock-bottom introspection born of a pitiless thrashing in Wellington at the last World Cup .
Tim Southee took seven wickets that day as Morgan's side staggered to 123 all out, the definitive expression of the white ball as a source of apparently irresolvable agony for a generation of England batsmen. In reply, Brendan McCullum came out and swung with gleeful, murderous intent. New Zealand won with 226 balls to spare. James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Steven Finn went for 113 in nine overs. The clock seemed to have stopped.
Morgan's captaincy was almost broken by Wellington. He was sustained, in part, by his close friendship with McCullum, a one-man model for high-rev white-ball cricket. At the end of a craven tournament, Morgan and the new interim coach, Paul Farbrace, made a decision: England would chuck out everything. They would become something else. Four months later, it was New Zealand again at Trent Bridge as England fielded seven new players and blazed their way to 408. The new age of Eoin and Brendan, the age of the ruthlessly executed white-ball plan, was born.
Four years on, England faced new Zealand again at Chester-le-Street with their World Cup one defeat away from collapse. They pressed the throttle. Southee, the hammer of Wellington, was smashed for 70 in nine overs. And now we have this: New Zealand again the opponents as England look to enter Avalon, Agincourt, the Field of Cloth of Gold, the dawning of the age of. . . well, what exactly?
That four-year transformation of tone, texture, method and, indeed, results has been a product of will and personality as much as any great change in the wider system. England have won 65 and lost 26 ODIs since Wellington, compared with 42 won and 42 lost in the previous four years. But the change has been more than results. It goes to the basic idea of how it should feel to play the game.
There are certain well-worn themes to any examination of how England got from there to here. Words such as mindset and attitude are often used. But England's long and troubled history of batting against the white ball spoke to exactly this, to that cloud of doubt, a fear not just of failure but of playing in a way that transgresses against the old cobwebbed tone of cricket in England of straight bats and high elbows. The sanctity of the batsman's wicket.
This kind of thing naturally runs through English cricket. It has been a feat of will to cast it aside. Even in the defeat of Australia on Thursday, with England sprinting to the line, it was notable that Morgan batted with restless urgency, hitting and swiping and carving to the end. This is an act of defiance.
The creation of a club atmosphere and the cutting back of the player pool have also been key. After Wellington, Morgan decided he needed certain nonnegotiable elements in his team. England would choose their most talented hitters - and not in the old patronising, bits-and-pieces mode, but those with the explosive skill to hit the best bowlers in the world through and over the field.
Morgan wanted a leg-spinner, quick bowlers and destructive batting right down the order. England were lucky here. Creating a supportive atmosphere is all very well. But the players have also got to be good enough, and Morgan, Farbrace and Trevor Bayliss showed forensic skill in identifying the right bodies for those roles. They also stuck with them. Winning teams create stability. Stability creates winning teams. Either way, England have given an ODI debut to 10 players in the past three years. Most were necessary fill-ins. Only Jofra Archer of those 10 is in the team now. In the three years before that, 18 new players were capped. Between 2003 and 2006, England reeled in 25 new ODI players.
Watching this it has been easy to portray Bayliss as little more than a floppy hat, a pair of glasses and a slightly puzzled expression. But creating the sense of freedom in the batting order has been a masterful feat of light-touch control.
And there is also a flexibility. England came to this World Cup hoping to blast their way to victory. They found a set of pitches that demanded something else, an ability to win other ways. The pace bowlers, led by Archer, have stepped up.
There is a legitimate question about where this all leads. Four thrilling years in the making, there is still something temporary about this England team, a group of cricketers who play like there will be no more World Cups, just this one, and for whom this is invariably the case. Two months from now the coach will be gone. Only Archer in the current first XI is younger than 28. The captain is 33. The absence of an even vaguely comparable fill-in at the top of the order when Jason Roy was injured demonstrated the huge gulf between this top tier of players and what lies outside the elite system.
Taking players away from the domestic game, encouraging them to play franchise and international cricket, has been key to getting the most out of them. This success has nothing to do with any system beneath. It is a feat of elite talent management, taking the very top and throwing care and resources at it.
There is no obvious pathway from here. It is instead the culmination of something. Four years on from Wellington England have been geared with a fearless sense of certainty towards today, Lord's and a final meeting with those familiar Black Caps. Victory really is everything now.
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