ICC CRICKET WORLD CUP, 2019
While England were clinical, the fans remained cynical ©AFP
While the rest of the world was watching a feel-good, happy-ending rom com, the English seemed to be caught up with one of those horror flicks with a nasty shock at every turn. Or so you felt at Edgbaston on Thursday (June 11). It was the same movie being played out on the same screen by the way. But you wouldn’t have thought so based on the apprehension and overriding foreboding that seemed to have gripped Birmingham and the entire nation as England chased down Australia’s meagre total.
It was almost like if the scene was that of a young couple on a date, the English fans were fretting with their fingers resting on their cheeks over the calamity they were sure would befall the two. And every time, they walked into a room, sure enough the English believed they’d be jumped on. It wasn’t just about them not expecting the boy to get the girl in the end. It was them fearing they might even not make it to the final chapter.
England were perhaps playing their perfect match of the tournament ironically. The opening bursts from Chris Woakes and Jofra Archer had not just ripped apart the Australian top-order, they had made a statement with the new-ball that will stay with the Aussies for the rest of the summer – not just on Alex Carey’s jaw. If Archer was hostile and fiery in telling the selectors he was ready for the Ashes, Woakes had shown just why he’s among the best in the world when there’s even the slightest amount of assistance on or around the wicket. There was some expected resistance from Carey and Steve Smith with a century partnership, but then Adil Rashid had put his hand up for the first time in the tournament to end it. Mark Wood and Liam Plunkett had then finished off in perfect fashion too, ensuring that the Aussies never got away.
A chase of 224 on a two-paced pitch for an English team that has made chasing down massive scores in home conditions a formality? No problem right? But no, still all the English fans could do was see demons on the pitch and demons around their players’ confidence. They’ll surely mess this up, was the collective cynical consensus. If England could bundle them out on this pitch, imagine what Starc, Cummins and even Lyon will do. And don’t forget Behrendorff.
There was little or no negativity or pessimism in the way Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow came out to bat, and by the third over they’d hit Mitchell Starc out of the attack – at least taken 23 runs off his first three overs including the most audacious whip you’ll see of a genuine fast bowler from Roy that soared over fine-leg. There certainly was no lack of belief among the England team, but still not so much around Edgbaston. England of course play their best cricket when England is against them. But here, it wasn’t a case of the English fans turning on them. This was just the English fans fearing another deja vu in a knockout match of a World Cup.
Most put it down to the muscle memory of an English sporting team having built up hope and expectation, only to then completely lose the plot. Every little incident on the field continued to be seen through the tunnel vision of grave dread. Roy and Bairstow may have been putting the Aussies to the sword, but was it too good to be true? Was there a twist in the tale? The English fans believed there was.
They believed it when Bairstow went down on his haunches next to Carey after running a quick two, was tended to by the physio for 10 minutes and then became the first batsman perhaps to pad up in the middle of a cricket ground. Even the fear of bad karma was invoked when when Roy drove straight down the wicket and decided to complete the run after the ball had hit Bairstow’s bat and despite his partner not being so keen on pushing the realms of cricketing ethics. The English openers tried their best to blow the fears away with three fours off Starc when he was brought back before Roy smashed Smith for three consecutive sixes in the next over.
England now needed 108 runs in 34 overs at just over 3-runs-an-over. Clearly, now the English fans could relax, except there was a drizzle and Bairstow was dismissed. Could England possibly not end up playing 20 overs on Thursday and therefore have to come back a day later to seal their finals’ slot? And what if the expected thunderstorm hit Birmingham a day later? That would of course mean Australia go through, and England miss out again.
The World Cup semifinal of course must have felt like being straight out of the classics section for the Aussie fans. They’ve watched this before and know the ending better than anyone else. An Australian team had never experienced defeat in a World Cup semifinal before after all. The only time they hadn’t won one was right here at Edgbaston in 1999, when a tie had been enough. You actually wonder how many Aussies were up Down Under to see the carnage their bowlers had to endure, especially after it became clear to everyone but the English fans that this time Australia were in store for a different ending. It had been a strange campaign for Australia. Like Pat Cummins would admit later in the day, they’d come this far without ever playing the perfect match or needing to anyway. Here, they were asked to bring their best game to the table by the best ODI team in the world, and they simply weren’t good enough.
“I think we’re quite cynical people, who never quite give people credit when it’s due. There’s always a different side to it. We grow up around it. It is the way we are and we sometimes enjoy it too much. I think us, as a team, we have learnt to enjoy ourselves, particularly days like this, even if they don’t go well. If you had offered us the position to play in a final the day after we were knocked out of 2015 World Cup, I would have laughed at you,” is how the Irish-born Morgan would sum up the inherent English cynicism over knockout matches.
The English fans were by now at least on their feet and not the edges of their seats. Perhaps the dread was lifting. “Let them get within 50 runs of the target and then we might relax,” one English fan insisted. How right he was. For, as Joe Root and Eoin Morgan began putting the final touches to the run-chase, Edgbaston did come alive raucously. And before you knew it, they’d gone from Neil Diamond and Sweet Caroline – the soundtrack to most cricket matches at this venue – to the very non-cynical tunes and lyrics of “It’s coming home…” Maybe the English fans finally do believe. Maybe they do believe is a happy ending in the end. Maybe they do believe the World Cup is coming home. Maybe they believe…