At last, a win. In the initial reckoning, it might not mean much, coming at the fag end of a series in which the size of the defeats was matched by the weight of the derision. But it was convincing enough to suggest that the game is not yet entirely up for England’s chances in the World Cup, at least until it actually starts next February.
The margin of 41 runs against India in the fifth one-day international yesterday, making the series score 1-3, was founded on Joe Root’s magisterial hundred. His 113 from 108 balls contained almost everything that could be expected from a one-day No 4. He entered in a period of familiar adversity, took stock, surveyed the scene, ticked over and finished in a blaze of assured, smart strokeplay.
It was his fourth international century of the summer and the first by a Yorkshireman in a one-day international at Headingley.
It seemed possible even then that a total of 294 on a pitch that was all but perfect would not be enough to repel the might of India. What England urgently needed was an early wicket of the kind they themselves have been proffering with the generosity of donors to a disaster emergency appeal.
In the event they managed two and should have had four if they had clung on to their catches. If it did not leave the tourists with too much to do, it invited questions that they had been asked too rarely in the previous fortnight.
England bowled more astutely than they had throughout the series. Jimmy Anderson, his international course run until November, bowled as if relieved at the prospect of rest. Moeen Ali, the bowling discovery of the summer, once more dumbfounded batsmen who are supposed to play his sort of spin with sticks of rhubarb.
There were eight balls left when Steve Finn, not quite restored to his former glory but on the way there, bowled a stubbornly defiant Ravi Jadeja. By then, England must have believed the victory was in the bag but such has been their ability recently not only to lose but to turn winning positions into losses, and so jauntily was Jadeja batting, that nothing could be certain.
“It becomes a bit frustrating because when we play like that we know we’ll win a lot more games,” said England’s captain, Alastair Cook. “We did a lot of things very well, a lot of the things that we haven’t done well in previous games.
“One of the top four got in and went on, and he was given the necessary support lower down. It gave us a total to defend and we have the bowlers who can defend a total if we give them one.”
It would be folly to read too much into a solitary, consolatory win. There are still more thistles than roses in England’s garden and their one-day cricket lacks conviction. Cook’s position will also continue to be the object of forensic examination. He ensured that the debate would rage yesterday by making his way to 46, without looking remotely fluent, and then being carelessly dismissed.
Barely six months and a maximum of 12 matches from the World Cup, England still do not know their preferred XI and yesterday they used their seventh different No 3 batsman in 17 matches this year.
They have shown neither the form nor the purpose of feasible World Cup competitors, yet this should provide them with a reason to hope that their expressions of optimism are not the usual bluster of stumblebums.
“Unfortunately this series has thrown up a few more questions than answers,” said Cook. “We’re going to have to go away and think about it very hard.”
More will be known after the seven-match tour to Sri Lanka in November and December, which will have little bearing on how the games are played in Australia but will offer abundant opportunity for gaining experience and solidifying unity. Between now and then they have to devise a method that might work for both the players and the tournament.
Root has had a wonderful summer, yesterday’s hundred being added to his three in the Test matches. This innings was also significant for England’s immediate future. It showed that all is not lost in their middle order, that the team are capable of recovering boldly from a dodgy start.
Of course, it would help if they could avoid the dodgy starts. Their constant repetition throughout this series has rendered impossible a difficult task against one of the most accomplished limited-overs sides around.
To have a chance of prevailing in this series, England had to bring their A game – and instead brought something about 14 letters lower down the alphabet.
Here Root was given essential help by Jos Buttler, who was typically ebullient, and Ben Stokes, who carted away merrily at the end. These were all sights that need to become much more common.