England have not made it easy on themselves, but they have made the semi-finals of the Cricket World Cup. While they will see this as just the first part in the much bigger task of winning the whole thing, this is quite the achievement. They have not made it this far in a World Cup since 1992.
To give that some context, that was before two members of this squad were born. In fact, there are very few players in this set up who will even remember that tournament. The average age of this team is just over 28, England’s last semi-final was 27 years ago.
Still, it seemed as England stumbled against Sri Lanka and Australia to put their chances of making the knock-out stages in serious doubt that maybe this team was struggling with the weight of expectation. They may not remember all of England’s previous World Cup woes, but maybe it was playing on their minds. While these players had appeared unaffected by expectations of being the world’s best ODI side in the lead up to this World Cup, once the tournament started things seemed to be going wrong.
This England team is different from the ones of the past though. While winning the World Cup still seems a long way away, they didn’t crumble after those defeats. After that loss to Sri Lanka Eoin Morgan said, “When we get beaten we tend to come back strong and resort to aggressive, smart, positive cricket.”
They didn’t manage that in their next game against Australia where their weaknesses when batting on a pitch that has something in was exposed for a second successive game, but with them basically needing to win their last two matches against two of the best teams in the tournament, they came back hard.
It seems crazy to say it of a team who have scored more than 300 in six of their nine group games, and 213/2 off 33 overs in another, but England have actually been a bit disappointing with the bat in this World Cup. While this says a lot about how good they have been at batting in the last four years, it doesn’t make it any less true.
While Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow have been big positives at this World Cup, and Joe Root and Ben Stokes have made big contributions, the finishers have been disappointing. It was the batting order from numbers five to eight that have done so much to propel England to huge totals. At this World Cup, they have failed too often. Even in these wins against New Zealand and India, they struggled.
Eoin Morgan played a brilliant, otherworldly innings against Afghanistan but has struggled otherwise. It is important not to play down that remarkable 143 against the Afghans, but he would have wanted to do more elsewhere, especially when the pitch has been one where scoring has been tough. Scoring tricky runs has been what Morgan has done for this England team so often in the past.
Buttler has made a hundred in this tournament, in the loss to Pakistan. He made 64 in the win over Bangladesh. Since then he has scores of 2, 10, 25 and 20. For England’s most dynamic white ball cricket, this is slim pickings from the business end of the tournament. He has a semi-final and (potentially) a final to put on a really Buttler-esque batting display, but by his own high standards he hasn’t been great.
The biggest difference between the side that lost to Sri Lanka and Australia and the one that comfortably dispatched India and New Zealand was Jason Roy. The gap he left in the England batting lineup when he was on the sidelines with a hamstring tear was massive. He made 66 against India and 60 in this match. Neither innings was anything like as destructive as the 153 he made in England’s win over Bangladesh earlier in this tournament, but the solid foundation he made with Jonny Bairstow in each game was match-defining.
The importance of that opening pair to England has been very obvious in the last two games as the middle order has struggled to kick on once the ball has gone soft. This is something that England cannot afford in the knockouts where the pressure of big scores will be so important to their chances to progress.
The opening stand against India was 160. In this game, it was 123. Of all the opening partnerships who have batted together 20 times or more in ODIs, Bairstow and Roy have the best average and the best strike rate. They have opened together 31 times, in 10 of those games they have put on more than 100 for the first wicket. That an England opening pair have a claim to be amongst the best ever is quite the thing when you consider their appalling recent history in this format.
The danger for England in the knockouts to come is if Roy and Bairstow don’t fire, and the finishers fail to finish. This is where the real World Cup starts.