It’s barely remembered now, but the England ODI side was ranked No.1 in the world for five months in 2012.
They had beaten Pakistan in the UAE. They had beaten India and Australia at home. They had three men – Jonathan Trott, Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen – who had, at one stage, been rated in the top three of the ODI rankings for batting and four men – Stuart Broad, Graeme Swann, Steven Finn and James Anderson – who had been rated in the top four for bowling. They were a fine side.
But you probably don’t remember. Because they didn’t win a trophy. And, harsh though it is, they are now remembered as playing an out-dated brand of cricket that the world has left behind.
The point of all this? Trophies matter. Yes, bilateral series can be fun and significant. But it is global trophies that define reputations. And no global 50-over trophy defines reputations more than the World Cup.
This England team has achieved just about everything it can – world records, No. 1 status and respect from opponents and spectators – without winning a trophy. But, if they are to be remembered as the game-changing side they deserve to be, if they are to leave some sort of legacy, if they really are going to gain some traction in a mainstream media that, in the UK, seems more interested in football transfers (at least one paper led with a story about a footballer’s dog on Wednesday) in the off-season than a cricket World Cup, they have to have some silverware to show for it.
They may never have a better chance. It’s not just that this World Cup is played in their own conditions and, to some extent, in front of their own supporters. It’s that they have been preparing for it for years and the No. 2 ranked side – England are back at No. 1 – has been eliminated. England have won 10 of their last 11 ODIs against Australia in England, they are playing at a ground where they have won their last 10 international matches across formats and where Australia have not won an ODI since 1993. While Australia are beset with injuries, England have their first choice 15 available. Not since 1987 (or perhaps 1992) have they had a better chance to win the World Cup.
You wonder for the future of 50-over cricket in England, too. Next year, the ECB will bring in The Hundred. It will be played at the same time as the domestic 50-over competition meaning the best 100 or so white-ball players will no longer be available to participate in it. Perhaps, if The Hundred inspires new followers to the game, we will look back and congratulate the ECB on their foresight and bravery, but it does seem bizarre to build towards a 50-over tournament for years and then undermine the format’s future. It also seems inevitable that England’s ODI future will be compromised. It would probably be a bit of an exaggeration to say ‘it’s now or never’ for England. But only a bit of one.
There are further implications for England ahead of this match. Not least of them is that we now know, if England reach the final, the match will be broadcast free to air. That provides a tangible opportunity to reach the new audience the game’s authorities have been targeting for years; a tangible chance for this wonderfully entertaining side to inspire a new generation; a tangible chance for the sport in this country to grow. And if any of that sounds like hyperbole, remember it would be the first England ODI (part of one Test was shown free to some customers in 2013) broadcast free to air in the UK since 2005. It really could be the first time many English people have ever seen their team play.
The team know all this, of course. In the last couple of days, two of them – Ben Stokes and Liam Plunkett – have referred to this match as the biggest of their careers. So, much as they may talk about being relaxed and playing the aggressive brand of cricket which has earned them such success, it is hard to know how they will react for sure in the spotlight. The signs of recent days – the victories over India and New Zealand in what amounts to knock-out cricket – is encouraging. So is the relaxed air that has remained around the squad in training. But it is one thing to look relaxed in training; it’s another to do it when the first Mitchell Starc yorker hones in towards your toes.
Of course it’s Australia standing in England’s path here. Australia, the old enemy. Australia, the reborn. Australia, the new-age, kid-loving, barefoot-walking wolf in sheep’s clothing (as far as England are concerned). Australia, who are playing pressure-free cricket having already done better than they could have hoped a year or so ago. Australia, with their apparently unquenchable confidence. Australia, who England haven’t beaten in a World Cup since 1992 and who have progressed in every semi-final they’ve contested. Australia, who are perfectly poised to exploit any diffidence and ruin the party. No team makes England more nervous. No team has caused them such misery. This game didn’t need more on it, but the identity of Australia as opponents has provided it anyway.
Eoin Morgan, the captain who has instilled so much of the spirt in this England side, is not denying the magnitude of the occasion. But rather than shirking from it, he hopes his side relish it. Most of all, he is telling them not to worry about the result, but concentrate on the process. He didn’t quite say ‘it’s not whether we win or lose, it’s how we play the game,’ but he might as well have done.
“The level of expectation in the team is to go and justify how we play,” Morgan said. “If that means getting knocked or winning the World Cup, I think the guys will be happy. If we don’t justify ourselves and give it everything we have done, I think the guys will be disappointed. Our strength is the way we play and sticking to that, no matter how long we have left in the tournament.”
You know what he means. And, from his perspective, it’s the right mindset. But you suspect, if England do lose, this will be a match that keeps these players up at night decades into the future. These are career defining days – perhaps even life defining – for many of those involved. They need a trophy to show for their improvement. They need tangible reward.
Maybe Jos Buttler put it more eloquently – certainly he put it more succinctly – when he wrote ‘F*** it’ on the top of his bat handle. Either way, England have to embrace the moment; enjoy the eyes upon them; revel in the consequences of the match in which they are involved and let their undoubted talent flow. Yes, they have to be able to adapt to conditions as required. But they also have to be bold and seize the day. They have to take the opportunity to show off their skills in front of a nation. These are the moments that every one of this team will have dreamed about being involved in as a child. They have to believe they are good enough to be here. And good enough to go a step further.
This game is played a year to the day since England’s footballers were knocked out of the World Cup at the semi-final stage. Most onlookers agreed they had performed brilliantly to progress so far. But this England side wants more than that; needs more than that. They don’t want to be Henry Cooper rocking Muhammad Ali; they don’t want to be Tim Henman going a set-up on Goran Ivanisevic; they sure as hell don’t want to be congratulating Carlos Brathwaite on an incredible innings. They don’t want to be plucky losers. Sport is never really all about winning. But you could be forgiven for not knowing it at Edgbaston on Thursday.