There are two teams who head into the 2019 Cricket World Cup with a huge weight of expectation on them. The first is India, the powerhouse of 21st Century cricket, a team led by a player who will retire as the greatest ODI batsman of all time. India lost in the final of the last ICC ODI tournament in England and they will be very hungry to go one better at this World Cup. They just beat Australia at home and will be hoping that disappointment in the T20 International against the same opponents was a minor blimp on their way to triumph in upcoming white ball tournaments.
Then there is England. Since the last World Cup, a tournament where England were horrendously and hilariously bad, they have been reinventing ODI batting. They have made 25% of the top 20 ODI scores ever in the last four years, including a world record effort of 481/6 against Australia last summer. When at their best with the bat, England are like the bad guy in a horror movie, it doesn’t matter how many times they get knocked to the floor they keep coming to give their victims more and more punishment. The concern for their fans is that just like the monster in the scary movie, England will be destroyed at the end of the story arc.
In this series against West Indies they showed what they can do. In the first ODI they pulled off their most successful run chase ever, and the third highest in the history of ODIs. In the fourth match of the series they passed 400 for the fourth time in the last four years. They are revolutionising batting in a way no team has done since Sri Lanka opened the batting with Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana at the 1996 World Cup.
England have never had a better chance of winning a World Cup, something they have famously failed to do in the past. They are a number one in the rankings, capable of taking any bowling attack apart and have home conditions to take advantage of.
When they are good, they are exceptional, when they are bad it is difficult viewing. In the final match at the Daren Sammy Cricket Ground in St Lucia, we saw the opposite side to England’s batting prowess. In the face of a pitch with bounce and real pace from Oshane Thomas and the rest of the Windies attack England succumbed tamely with a series of cross-batted shots. As the hosts showed as they chased down the meagre target of 114 in 12.1 overs with seven wickets to spare.
That defeat was chastening and embarrassing for a team who have designs on a World Cup title, but it was perhaps less worrying than what happened in the second match of the series where England looked set to take a 2-0 series lead. There they let the Windies off the hook and left Barbados with the series level at 1-1. Chasing 290 for victory, England were 228/4 with 10 overs to go.
They should have cruised to a win. Instead they lost their last six wickets for the addition of just 35 runs.
There are nine other teams who will be playing at World Cup, for England the biggest challenge may well be themselves.
For the West Indies, things are looking better than they have in years after the first two parts of this England visit, and they have their strongest format still to come. They have won the Tests 2-1, drawn 2-2 with the best ODI team in the world and have further cemented the places of some of the truly exciting young cricketers they have developed in recent years. Shimron Hetmyer made another ton, Oshane Thomas got his maiden five-wicket haul in the demolition of England in the last ODI, Sheldon Cottrell has finally found the consistency he has shown in domestic cricket on the international stage. And the new talent doesn’t just stop there. There are some seriously talented cricketers coming through in the Regional one-day and four-day competitions and at the Caribbean Premier League. After so many years of underperformance, things are starting to turn around for the Windies, and that is hugely exciting for world cricket.
While it is important to give well deserved credit to the new players, but we need to take a moment and talk about Chris Gayle, a man who turns 40 in September and who finishes this series as the leading run-scorer. Gayle batted four times in this series and made two fifties and two hundreds. His 162 off 97 balls in the third match meant that Windies came very close to chasing down 418. His 77 from 27 balls in the final match of the series was the punctuation mark on an emphatic win. He became the second West Indian to pass 10,000 ODI runs. Assuming he is fit and driven for the World Cup he has a good chance of passing Brian Lara’s all-time record for the Windies. We are so lucky to have him, and cricket will be a poorer sport when he departs.