England are one match away from glory. It could be their good fortune to be playing Australia, their oldest rivals, in the World Twenty20 final today, because their opponents scraped through by the skin of their teeth. Or it could be their misfortune to be meeting a team who qualified for the final after one of the most remarkable transformations effected in T20 or any other game – ever.
Paul Collingwood, England's captain, was playing golf when Mike Hussey was launching Pakistan's hapless bowlers into the stratosphere around St Lucia on Friday night. It was probably as well. Watching Hussey perform the sort of escape act seen only in circuses might have persuaded the captain that Australia could win any time, from anywhere.
The game was up when they found themselves needing 56 from four overs. They had been behind throughout the match against the holders, Pakistan. There was nowhere Australia were going but home. Hussey kept hitting sixes, and when the final over came with Australia still needing an improbable 18 to win he acquired them almost routinely, three booming sixes securing their place.
Much, too much, has been written or said over the years about Australians never knowing when they are beaten. They have been defeated often enough – by England as recently as last summer when the Ashes were at stake, it may be remembered – but Hussey's astonishing endeavours can be called in evidence sine die to support the contention.
Australia will start as favourites, though they were as long as 109-1 during their semi-final. But although they have won all their six matches in this tournament, they can be beaten. Zimbabwe did so in a warm-up match before the official proceedings began.
England are also on a roll. Never before have they won four consecutive T20 matches and they have done so with a conviction and assurance which has rarely been part of their one-day cricket in the past 20 years.
"Australia are never beaten until they're beaten and they've always been that way," said Collingwood. "Whatever situation they get themselves in they always seem to be able to fight their way out of it. They've always had that trait in their cricket but we've just got to be really focused on what our strengths are and not what the opposition's are."
Collingwood was also correct in assessing that while Australia could take a lot of confidence from what happened, there were also areas they needed to improve on. They were behind for the majority of the game, conceded 20 runs more than they ought to have done and frankly were beginning to fall apart in the field.
The finalists have been the best teams, not only in the sense of their results but also the manner in which they have approached the game. Australia's strategy is based on blasting the opposition with bat and ball. They have three extremely fast bowlers, two of them left- armers, which can muck up angles of hitting for right-handed batsmen. Their opening batsmen are given free rein to hit but they have a wonderfully long tail in which Hussey, their miracle worker, comes in at No 7.
England have three pace bowlers who have managed by and large to keep it straight and also come up with some excellent variations but it is the middle overs, which are bowled by the spin pairing of Graeme Swann and Mike Yardy, which have been instrumental. It is not especially pretty but they deserve all the praise lavished on them.
England's batting is not as strong as Australia's but their openers have given them a platform and Kevin Pietersen – now a happy father of one after going home during the week to see his wife, Jessica, give birth to young Dylan – and Eoin Morgan are match-winners, pure and simple.
Collingwood played in England's last one-day final, in the Champions Trophy at The Oval in 2004 when they seemed to have it done and dusted before West Indies' ninth-wicket pair put on 71 from nowhere. That was almost, but not quite, on the Hussey scale of escape.
"They just put on an amazing partnership and as a result we were very down about it," Collingwood said. "This, though, is a World Cup and that feels a lot different to a Champions Trophy, without devaluing that tournament at all. We've been talking about it between ourselves, and getting into the finals of World Cups doesn't happen too often in the history of English sport, let alone cricket.
"If you look at the footballers in 1966 and then the rugby guys who've had a couple of finals, it is not something that comes around every day, so we feel like we're in a privileged position right now. A World Cup in whatever sport you play is the ultimate, so the boys are just really excited that we've got ourselves in a position to win it."
Wherever he goes, Collingwood is looking for portents. When he walked out to the semi-final against Sri Lanka he took the hand of the little girl who was acting as mascot.
"I said, 'Hi my darling, what's your name then?' and she turned and said, 'My name's Lucky,' so as soon as she said it I had a big smile on my face and thought what a great sign that is."
And that golf he went to play after watching Pakistan's innings also struck a chord. He was playing with Ottis Gibson, England's former bowling coach who is now the West Indies coach, against Jimmy Anderson and Craig Kieswetter. His opponents, said Collingwood, were hitting it out of sight but he and Gibson clinched it on the last green, one up. "I'm hoping that is a good sign for me."
As it happens, Collingwood has been woefully short of runs in this competition, with a highest innings of 16. But his leadership, like so much else about England's powerful cricket, in which their fielding has been unexpectedly splendid, has resonated with calmness and a willingness to stick to the plan while making tiny, telling amendments to it.
This is the final that all English and Australian supporters would have wanted. England can win it, Australia probably will, given Friday's events. But then nobody could have predicted that England would be here at all, within touching distance of glory.
What England must do to win
Judge the conditions So much can happen in a Twenty20 match that it can become bewildering. England must work out sharpish how many runs is par, batting or bowling. The continuation of their spinners' form in bottling up the middle of the innings is vital.
Stop grumbling Despite winning, England have sometimes been at each other's throats in the field. Serenity, not snarling, is now paramount. As coach Andy Flower put it: "There is a fine line between demanding high standards of your fielders, which is a healthy place to be for a side, and then stepping over that line into a petulant world, and a world that damages the team in any way."
See off the powerplay In all but one match, England have had a start (and when they did not they still posted 168, against South Africa) and this has been key to achieving their aspirations. The loss of two quick wickets would test them as they have not been tested yet.
Get Mike Hussey out After his extraordinary innings on Friday (60 from 24 balls), it is improbable Hussey can do it again. But from No 7 he has three times in this competition taken Australia to totals that looked beyond their scope. Dismiss him and England really will think they are home.
Stephen BrenkleyReuse content