"Roy and Bairstow back together, a match made in heaven."
Nasser Hussain waxed lyrical as Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow went about creaming runs against New Zealand to set a solid platform. It was their third consecutive century partnership of the tournament including two in must-win games.
You could sense the weight in Hussain's words. In the last two weeks, England have endured a bumpy ride. Two consecutive batting failures, against Sri Lanka and Australia, had pushed them on tenterhooks and on brink of possible embarrassment. The biggest strength had suddenly turned into a weakness.
It's amazing how one player can impact a team's fortunes. Roy's hamstring had given away during the West Indies match and three-and-a-half weeks later, England were so desperate to have him back that they were ready to risk him even if there were chances of short-term ramifications.
The last two matches, against India and New Zealand, showed why. Roy's return has had a major impact on England's fortunes. Along with Jony Bairstow, he's has injected early momentum which has been so vital in these changing conditions and pitches.
Two 100-plus partnerships in two innings with Bairstow on his comeback have played a vital part in keeping their hopes alive and breathed life in their campaign.
His aggression and confidence have not only rubbed off on the team but Bairstow as well. His replacement during injury, James Vince, somehow didn't imbue the same confidence.
One of the cornerstones and pillars on which this new England 'macho' approach has been built is the Roy-Bairstow stand. In Roy's absence, England couldn't set those platforms. The opening stands read 44, 1, 0 and Vince looked nowhere near Roy's class.
The criticism had started. England's approach was questioned. Ben Stokes said they won't take a backward step. They weren't going to change the approach that had given them their identity.
In desperate times, Roy and Bairstow stepped up to add the oomph that had gone missing. The two got together to systematically dismantle the Indian bowling in the first 20 overs to belt out a resounding reply. It was a difficult Edgbaston wicket to bat on but the duo tactically diffused India's spin attack to inject momentum in their campaign by adding 160 runs.
The wicket got slower as the match progressed and the batsmen struggled to find their timing in the latter half. That put into perspective the importance of that start.
It is starting to somewhat become a trope that the teams are electing to bat with the pitches getting slower. So, against New Zealand, in another must-win match, the first important factor was the toss and then the start. Skipper Eoin Morgan made sure that the first one was taken care of and then Roy and Bairstow took care of the second part.
The 123-run opening stand from 18.4 overs in decent batting conditions had set the tone. It was important to capitalise on those early overs and that's exactly what the pair did. As expected, the pitch started to slow down. In fact, according to the two captains, it changed drastically. The England middle and lower middle order struggled for momentum and choked. At one stage, 340-350 seemed possible, they ended up with 305.
Right through the England innings, the experts in the commentary kept asserting that the most crucial thing for New Zealand will be the start. They didn't get a good one and were playing the chasing game throughout. It again put into perspective the significance of the start.
In Chester-le-Street, Roy and Bairstow became just the second pair to register three consecutive 100-plus stands in a World Cup after the Tillakaratne Dilshan and Kumar Sangakkara who achieved the milestone four years ago.
Once competing with each other for the opening spot, the duo got together two years ago at The Oval and started off in style with a 126-run stand against the West Indies. It was the injury to Alex Hales that opened the door for Roy. They went one step further and amassed 156 at Southampton in the next match and the juggernaut has carried on. In the 31 innings that they have opened together, they have amassed ten 100-plus partnerships and out of those, England have won nine matches the one they lost, they came tantalisingly close to chasing down 372 against Scotland in Edinburgh.
Overall, this is England's best ever ODI opening partnership with 2099 runs at an average of 67.70 including ten century and seven fifty-plus stands. For opening pairs to have batted more than 20 innings together, they have the best average and partnership run-rate — 7.11 — in the world.
It's not just that, they have a habit of scoring 'daddy hundred partnerships'. Five of the 10 century stands have been 150-plus.
"Yeah, it's brilliant to play with, really," Morgan replied when asked how impressive their numbers were in the post-match press conference. "If their average wasn't as high and it was actually down, their strike rate was still the same, the manner in which they played is the most important because we bat all the way down. We are not asking our guys to average 50 and strike it at 120, that is unrealistic. But pushing the ceiling as to what guys would normally do was part of the process in which we have gone through probably the first two years of the four-year cycle.
But looking at where the guys are at now, it is incredible, really, that the talent they possess and actually what they can achieve on a consistent basis."
What makes the Bairstow-Roy combo so dangerous is their fearless approach. Both can hit the fifth gear at the same time as well as adapt to each other's batting and change the approach according to the situations.. It was on display in the last two matches. Against India, Bairstow looked tentative at the start so Roy took on the aggressor's role and allowed his partner to settle down and then the roles reversed.
At Leeds, against New Zealand, there was a period in the first 10 overs where Roy was struggling with his timing and connection so Bairstow upped the ante. Having batted so long with each other, the understanding has increased and there has been a lot of knowledge sharing as well.
"We communicate about the bowlers sharing views on if it is seaming, what a particular bowler is trying to achieve, and traps they are trying to set for us and how we go about scoring runs," Bairstow wrote in his column in Telegraph ahead of the New Zealand match. "We will discuss what shots are working, those that are not, and build a shared view on the pitch and communicating this back to the dressing room. The way he is striking the ball at the moment and enjoying his cricket brings a calmness to proceedings too. His confidence is infectious."
New Zealand captain Kane Williamson admitted after the match that duo put them under a lot of pressure to start off.
"Those guys have been playing beautifully well for a long time. But certainly, in this tournament, as well, under I guess different sorts of pressure, so a big weapon for them at the top of the order," he added.
In this tournament, England have had the third-best average partnership per dismissal for the opening wicket, behind Australia (82.12) and India (71.42) and second-best partnership run rate at 6.45 behind Sri Lanka (6.60). But if you filter in just Roy and Bairstow, it jumps up to 84.80 with a run rate of 6.78.
The nerves have eased. The campaign is back on track. Tougher challenges await for England in the knock-outs. This opening pair hasn't been tested thoroughly while chasing. If that situation arises...and if they do manage to ace it as well then, it might well be coming home!