Twelve are needed off the final over, to be bowled by Mitchell Starc, but Ben Stokes is on strike, with number 11 Mark Wood at the other end. The first ball, a yorker, is dug out but Stokes refuses to run. The second ball is wider and Stokes slashes at it, as it beats a diving Glenn Maxwell into the boundary fence. The crowd goes wild. The next ball misses the target, wide of leg stump and Stokes hoiks it off his hip and into the stands. The crowd goes wilder. Only 2 are needed with 3 balls but with one wicket in hand it is anybody’s game. Starc bowls another yorker but Stokes gets it away and could run a single to tie the game but he refuses it, as the crowd bites at their fingernails. The next ball, on a length, is in his arc, and he smashes it to a vacant spot near the boundary’s edge. They run 1, then 2, then celebrate the victory, even as Pat Cummins hurls it in. England have won the World Cup!
That’s the dream, but, after their loss to Sri Lanka and subsequent loss to Australia, it is looking increasingly unlikely, but it isn’t over quite yet. They have to beat India and New Zealand in their final two round robin matches to be sure of it. A win and a washout would be enough. A win and a loss might be enough. In theory, even losing both can qualify them, but it’s not likely, and that’s what people are saying will happen: that they’ll lose both matches and the final semi-final spot will go to the winner of Pakistan vs Bangladesh. But England can yet play spoilsport.
The first team in their way is India, who are undefeated and just stole England’s number 1 ranking from under their noses. If this were in India or anywhere in the subcontinent, India’s spinners would turn the tables in India’s favour, but in pace-friendly England, England should win.
The first thing that needs to happen is for them to get out of that negative spot they are in. Look at what South Africa did against Sri Lanka when they were depressed. That’s what they need to do. India are sledgers, or at least with their bodies, with Virat Kohli the worst offender, his actions being more intimidatory than the worst David Warner joke. The way to combat it is simple: just don’t look at him. New Zealand are good at ignoring sledging, so England could take a leaf out of their book. Ben Stokes is originally from New Zealand. Maybe he can help. Others in the team will also sledge but Kohli is by far the worst.
Stokes showed a lot of positivity in both the loss to Sri Lanka and the loss to Australia, so he is going to be the leader in getting out of that depression. Then Joe Root, then Jofra Archer, then Eoin Morgan and from there the rest of the team should fall in line. The surest way that England is going to lose is if they tell themselves they will lose. Half the battle is in the mind.
The next thing to do is to target India’s best player. You might think that that’s Virat Kohli but on current form Jasprit Bumrah is probably ahead. Bumrah isn’t the kind of bowler who cares if he is hit for a few 4s or 6s or if his economy rate gets out of hand, but he does care if he isn’t taking wickets. A bit like Muralitharan when he used to play, the key to combating Bumrah is simply not to take risks and to play sensibly against him. Take risks against the other bowlers.
India are pretty much a one-bowler team, the others feeding off Bumrah but being a much lower quality than Bumrah is. While Mohammad Shami took a hat-trick against Afghanistan, he is nowhere near as big a threat as Bumrah is – but that doesn’t mean you should ignore his potential. Chahal and Kuldeep can be good too – though they’d be better in spin-friendly conditions. Take care of Bumrah and the rest is considerably easier.
Onto the batting, the first issue is Rohit Sharma. Sure, so he fails more than he succeeds but when he does do well he is more than a handful. He has to be targeted before he can get going.
Next is Virat Kohli. While he is not in his very best form he is still scary, and we don’t want to let him get into his best form. He is a beast when he gets going and the main reason he hasn’t done so well in this tournament is because other teams have targeted him. You don’t want to let him get away at all.
Finally you need to worry about MS Dhoni. Like Kohli he is a long way from his best form, but he is the kind of player who is better than the sum of his parts, who can win games from nowhere, or set targets much higher than looks possible. He learned from the trail blazer finishers Chris Harris, Michael Bevan and Lance Klusener and does a bit of each of them when required.
If they do all of that, England should win. India are not a bad opponent for England at all, certainly not in England, and not against the team that England have right now. It shouldn’t even be close. England’s best chance is to bat first and put a big total on the board then defend it. India have been putting on low totals this tournament, so anything over 300 will be hard to chase.
New Zealand have already lost to Pakistan and, fingers crossed, they’ll lose to Australia too. New Zealand will qualify even if they lose (probably) so they shouldn’t be too desperate, and that should help to push England over the line, especially if they’ve beaten India. The funny thing is that if England lose to India then they might lose to New Zealand too, so one win is worth two.
New Zealand’s best player is Kane Williamson and the key is to target him. He is a very good defensive player so even if he is targeted he still might emerge unscathed so you need to time it so that you do still get other players out too. If Williamson is not out at the end but the team is bowled out for 200, that can work too. Ideally, though, if you can find some way through his defences, then that’d be great. The key is to mix it up a bit. Bowl a variety of bowlers. Maybe Ben Stokes could work. Confuse him. Make him defend in different ways.
The secondary problem is Ross Taylor. While in theory he can do well when Kane fails, more typically he feeds off Kane, and if Williamson is doing well then Taylor will too. Their partnership will be crucial. If Kane is impossible to get out, target Ross. It’s a big deal.
The rest of New Zealand’s batsmen are not as big a threat, but they have a range of players who can be good on their day. Colin de Grandhomme is probably the scariest of them, and on his day he is one of the best in the world, but James Neesham can also be scary on his day.
New Zealand’s two best bowlers, Trent Boult and Matt Henry, are pretty good, but they are not as good as the very best in the world. Lockie Ferguson is a tricky opponent, as he looks terrible, but that is a part of his trap, and he should be treated as you would a good bowler like Boult and Henry or else he will get you. Beyond those three, there isn’t too much to worry about, though, again, they will fight.
Unlike India, New Zealand don’t sledge, so you won’t have to worry about that, but sledges won’t work against them either. Just play good cricket and you should win. England are a better side than New Zealand, after all.
Semi-final: probably against India but maybe Australia
If the semi-final opponent is India, then in theory you just do the same thing you did in the round-robin, the main difference being that India are good at knockout matches and they will be angry that they lost. While the sledging will be different, you still need to be mindful of it.
The more dangerous opponent is Australia, who won the last match comfortably, and also won the warm-up match so will be confident.
There are multiple issues with Australia, most notably Finch and Warner with batting and Cummins and Starc with bowling, with Glenn Maxwell a fifth player whose strike rate is so huge that he has to be out quickly. While Steve Smith hasn’t been at his best this tournament, you can’t let him get away either.
It’s a lot of players to target and it might be easier to just play a straight game, but this is a team whose best players are a lot better than their worst, so targeting is worth it, even if it is a bit more complicated than against one-man teams.
The first thing to worry about are the bowlers, specifically Cummins and Starc. You need to not lose any wickets to them or it will fire up the rest of the bowlers and the team as a whole. Not losing wickets to Starc is particularly important. If Starc goes a few overs without taking a wicket he tends to bowl worse. While Cummins doesn’t care as much if he doesn’t take wickets, he sure does improve once he gets one.
Australia’s 3rd best bowler is a long way behind their top 2, though Jason Behrendorff showed that he can take wickets. Whoever the other bowlers might be, though, they can be targeted, especially if Starc and Cummins go wicketless. Maxwell, Stoinis and whoever the spinner might be can be targeted, but so can Nathan Coulter-Nile, if he plays, and even Behrendorff, though perhaps not as much.
With the batting, Finch and Warner, the two openers, are a huge problem, and you need to get both of them out early. Just getting one out and leaving the other one alone can just end up with a big century with the other batsmen feeding off them. If both are allowed to survive then it will cause major problems. Simply restricting their run rate is not good enough.
The second issue is Glenn Maxwell, the guy who can hit a 6 from the first ball he faces, and whose strike rate is incredible. You need to bowl aggressively to him, even though that will lead to him getting quick runs. There is no point bowling defensively as he will hit it big anyway. Just stick to your guns, let him get his 12 off 4 balls, and be done with it.
There is also the issue of Steve Smith, who, while he isn’t in his very best form, still could get a big one. If you get rid of everyone else but Smith is still there to score a century while farming the strike with the tail, then there is a big problem.
Whether England can beat Australia is another issue entirely. They won easily when Australia were depressed and were missing Warner and Smith but this is a different team now and with a different mindset.
Ben Stokes has been a key in beating Australia, while Joe Root is also an issue. Jofra Archer is the unknown who could spell the difference.
It’s a difficult assignment and probably the hardest one of all of the potential opponents but it is possible.
If England make it to the final, their opponents are most likely to be Australia, though potentially India or New Zealand could be there too. In theory, even Pakistan could be there, and, if Pakistan get there then they could be hard to beat.
The big issue is to remember the dream, to remember how hard you’ve fought to get there, and just let your dreams become reality.