Steve Smith plays a forceful, dominant drive off the back foot. Unfortunately for him, there’s no ball to be hit. Or batting partner to call for a run. The England fielders, meanwhile, are 40 yards away with their backs turned, massed in a huddle, jubilantly celebrating another Australian wicket. Australia are 14-3 in the World Cup semi-final, and as his top order team-mates collapse around him, all Smith can do is perch at the non-striker’s end, shadow batting, playing air drives.
At that moment in time, Smith is probably the only person on that field not enjoying himself. Jason Roy absent-mindedly does keepy-uppies with the white ball. The normally unflappable Eoin Morgan wears a broad smile at cover. Even umpire Marais Erasmus seems to be in a good mood, sharing a joke with Joe Root at the change of overs. This is supposed to be English cricket’s biggest game since the 2005 Ashes. And yet here they are, this mad, bold, brilliant bunch of lads: gurning and giggling like it’s a Sunday barbecue game.
For the dyed-in-the-wool English cricket fan, long on memory and short on patience, what to make of this surreal tableau? Chris Woakes and Jofra Archer are on fire. Australia are burning. Solid cricketing logic and bitter experience tells us that there are plenty of knife-twists to come, plenty of hard graft to be done. But here, right now, with Australia 14-3, Ben Stokes grinning from ear to ear and Edgbaston shaking to its very foundations: perhaps this is what pure bliss looks like.
Of course, it’s easy to smile when you’ve got the opposition 20-3 and their No 5 is wearing more bandages than Mr Bump. But what about when they’re 100-3 and surging back into the game, when Smith and Alex Carey are set and cruising, when the fielding is just coming apart a little?
You keep the faith, is what you do. Adil Rashid has had a tough tournament, and so far he’s having a tough game. His four overs have gone for 29 and a theoretically helpful pitch is offering him nothing. Morgan’s no sentimentalist: the mind goes back to Bristol a couple of months ago, when Joe Denly was trying to bowl himself into the World Cup squad against Pakistan, and Morgan unceremoniously hauled him out of the attack after just one over. Denly was last seen getting a three-ball duck for Kent in the County Championship.
Rashid: well, that’s a different story entirely. There’s pedigree and possibility there, the sort of trust that only comes from spending four years on a journey together. Perhaps, at this point, a more equivocal captain than Morgan begins to worry about how many runs England are leaking, and gives Rashid a break. But Morgan wouldn’t have got where he is today, wouldn’t have got England where they are today, if he were that kind of captain. Coolly, soberly, he tosses Rashid the ball for another over. Second delivery, Carey goes for a big heave with the spin and finds the fielder on the mid-wicket fence. The same over, Marcus Stoinis is trapped LBW. Australia are 118-5, and from that moment, they will never again be on level terms.
Around midway through the Australia innings, Mark Wood is about to field a ball at short third man when he’s rudely interrupted. There’s not the remotest danger of a run, but even so Archer has sprinted round 15 yards from backward point to dive theatrically in front of Wood and get to the ball first. That’s one side of Archer, the one his team-mates will tell you about: the irreverent, ever so slightly mischievous thrill-seeker.
A little while later, Australia get a glimpse of the other side. Archer as a bowler is often described in terms of his pure pace, and fair enough: when you’ve got a 93mph bouncer that can make the best batsmen in the world reconsider their insurance cover, that’s obviously going to set tongues wagging. But he’s not only England’s quickest bowler and their most dangerous bowler: he’s also their deftest and cleverest.
Smith reaches his 50 and raises a bat to the dressing room. He does not acknowledge the crowd, who are in any case mostly booing him. In any case, for all his genius, he’s not the key wicket here. Glenn Maxwell is the last man who can get Australia to the score of 280-300 that would put them in the driving seat. He’s striking at 163 in this World Cup, but equally he’s only faced an average of 11 balls per innings. Which means he’s had very little practice executing the one skill Australia need from him now: constructing an innings.
Archer bowls nine balls to Maxwell. All but one are uncomfortably short. The tenth is on a length, but at the last moment Archer shifts the ball out of his fingers and into his knuckles, sending it down at less than 80mph. The ball plops it straight to Morgan at cover. Glenn Maxwell, one of the greatest pure hitters in the game of cricket, hasn’t just been dismissed. He’s been bullied, teased, exposed, by a bowler who after just 13 one-day internationals already has a bold claim to being one of the greatest manipulators of a white-ball in the history of English cricket.
So, 224 to win. Simple, not simple. Daunting, not daunting. Again, cricket fans have long memories: Australia defended fewer than this in the 1999 and 2003 semi-finals, and England failed to get 233 against Sri Lanka. Then, there’s the record. Australia have never lost a men’s World Cup semi-final. In the period since England last won one, their new-ball bowler that day has had time to retire, become an international drugs smuggler, serve a six-and-a-half year prison sentence, get out, fully rehabilitate himself and become the subject of a critically-acclaimed stage play.
If anyone can stop England getting these, it’s Mitchell Starc. Starc bowls like the only cricket he’s ever watched in his life has been from YouTube compilations. If it’s not full and straight, or short and straight, he generally doesn’t bother. At Lord’s, it was Starc who tore England to bits, cleaning up Root with a searing missile that homed in on the leg stump and pinned him LBW on the crease.
Now Starc tries a similar delivery to Roy, but this time Roy has him sized up. Instead of stepping across his stumps, opening him up to the leg before, he sits tight and waits for the ball, closing the face on it at the last minute. By the time it lands, twelve feet over the rope at fine leg, it’s a shot worth more than six runs. It feels like a magic spell, an exorcism, a catharsis. Starc, Australia’s best bowler, has gone for 22 in two overs, and England have nothing more to fear.
If anyone can put the brakes on, it’s Nathan Lyon. England’s tormentor in the last Ashes series, Lyon has been particularly vocal in the build-up to this game. “It’s their World Cup to lose, if you ask me,” he said at the weekend. “We have got nothing to lose. That’s the exciting thing about it.” And so as he trots in to bowl with England 50-0, Lyon represents the faint whiff of caution, the reminder that for all England’s dominance, Australia still have a trick or two up their sleeve.
Roy hits his first ball for six.
And so, here we are. Root smashing Starc (9-0-70-1) through point and not even bothering to run. The Edgbaston crowd - presumably unaware of the well-appointed board in the Barnes Stand - politely asking David Warner if he knows what the score is. The ball disappearing over mid-on and Root and Morgan embracing each other and the fireworks going off and the Australians slumping to the turf and the rain finally lashing down, as if it had waiting patiently outside the door. Lyon finishing with figures of 0-49 off five overs. For an England fan, is this what pure bliss feels like?
Yes, perhaps if you were in the stands at Edgbaston on Thursday afternoon, belting out ‘Cricket’s Coming Home’ while swigging ICC-approved lager out of one of those plastic souvenir cups, this was as good as it gets. But not, I would wager, if you were on that field in England blue. Not after the ride they’ve been on. Not after all this time. English cricket’s biggest game in 14 years was, as it turned out, merely a precursor to the next. New Zealand await at Lord’s on Sunday, and for all the lawless abandon of Edgbaston, this remains a team utterly, unshakably convinced that their real moment of grace is still at hand.
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