Monday 26 August 2019

Fate conspires to give hosts best chance yet of taking elusive prize

New Zealand's Kane Williamson. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire
New Zealand's Kane Williamson. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire

Scyld Berry

Neither country in the final has won the men's Cricket World Cup before. So, the smith who starts to engrave the trophy in the Lord's pavilion, while the last few balls of this 12th tournament are being bowled, will be inscribing a new name that will, for the first time, end with "... land".

At this stage, ahead of the toss, here are the three likeliest outcomes if all the previous events in this World Cup form any relevant pattern. One is that New Zealand will win narrowly, because that is the only way they have won their big games, by tight margins - like two or four wickets, five or 18 runs - as they have thrown their black-clothed bodies around the field to back up their pace bowlers and pull more than their weight.

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The second is that England will win narrowly: if, for instance, another dry pitch does not allow for fluent batting, or an unforeseen eventuality disrupts England's recently scintillating progress, like a player wakes up with a bad back or is injured in the warm-ups. Totals of 500 were forecast for this tournament, but in 21 of the 43 completed games the combined totals have been lower.

Third of the likeliest results is that England will win at a canter. They have been horrid at various stages of their three defeats in the qualifying round, but when they have been good, they have swept away their opponents, all except for India who lost by only 31 runs. Otherwise, England's victories have been by emphatic margins, whether eight wickets - twice - or more than 100 runs. When England have been at ease with themselves, nobody has lived with them.

Winning the first semi-final last Tuesday, rather than the second as England did, would have been a significant advantage if this World Cup had been staged in Australia and New Zealand, like the last, or the one in India, like in 2011, or in the West Indies as in 2007: better to get the plane journey to the final venue, and even a change in time-zone, out of the way earlier in the week.

Winning the second semi on Thursday, however, is no disadvantage for England: a short drive from Birmingham, and little time to brood, after the best possible rehearsal for facing New Zealand's left-armer, Trent Boult, by dismantling Mitchell Starc and Jason Behrendorff.

The absence of any English male who has won a World Cup final is a significant handicap: nobody has gone before where Eoin Morgan's men have to go. But Morgan played in the 2010 team who won the World T20 finals in the West Indies, and their coach, Paul Collingwood, was captain, so the territory is not totally unfamiliar. And Trevor Bayliss coached Sri Lanka to what would have been their 2011 World Cup, until Mahela Jayawardene's century was trumped by MS Dhoni.

After New Zealand had brought off their great upset against India, the players and their families congregated on the Old Trafford field for group photographs.

It gave the impression they had achieved what they had set out to do - to fight above their weight yet again. Kane Williamson, underneath that boyish beard, has greater ambitions, but there is a limit to what any captain can do with an opening partnership which has been no more productive than Afghanistan's, and a batting side that has yet to reach 300.

New Zealand have their experience of playing in the last World Cup final, at Melbourne, but the experience of losing is not worth much. They did win the Champions Trophy, which has been beyond England, but that pre-dated any of their current players, back in October 2000, in the unusual surroundings of Nairobi. For most of their existence New Zealand have been unable to muster 11 top-class cricketers - and currently they are short of an opening batsman, or two.

In their qualifying game at Lord's against Australia, England lost because their pace bowlers - with the exception of Chris Woakes - under-pitched and underperformed, though allowances should be made for Jofra Archer feeling a side strain.

It was the same when England lost their 1987 final at Calcutta: the pressures of the occasion weighed too heavily on England's opening bowlers, so that Australia raced ahead from the start, and just stayed ahead, to win by seven runs.

England lost their last World Cup final at Lord's, in 1979, before any of the current squad was born. They allowed the sole West Indian spinner to bowl 10 overs for only 35 runs. It does not seem appropriate to describe Viv Richards as a weak link, but he was when compared with Andy Roberts and Michael Holding, Colin Croft and Joel Garner, who routed England in the twilight.

England lost the 1992 final primarily because they selected wrongly: they picked yet another all-rounder in Dermot Reeve, although he barely bowled, when they needed another specialist batsman in Robin Smith to withstand Pakistan's reverse-swing and spin. Their selection is almost certain to be the same as for their last three games since their renaissance.

Morgan owes his counterpart much thanks, if he and Williamson should have time for pleasantries before the toss at 10am. If New Zealand had not knocked out India, England's task would be appreciably harder. Instead of having two chances out of three against New Zealand, England would not be favourites against India. India's cricketers have a big-match temperament unequalled by any other country, because they live at the centre of attention.

But they paid the price for playing too much on flat pitches, so that when Boult and Matt Henry moved the new balls in the Old Trafford semi, their top order was found wanting. Australia's top order too at Edgbaston when Chris Woakes and Archer went to work.

So, it is England v New Zealand, on Morgan's home ground, and it will be something of an upset if the hosts do not win the men's World Cup for the first time.

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