If Andrew Strauss looks at this question, he will chuckle aloud. In a parallel universe, perhaps they are boarding the flight back home as one writes this. They came into the World Cup on the back of a long and arduous season, but after the high of the Ashes victory Down Under, they have been fighting to keep their heads above the water. And the loss to the West Indies would have finally given them some breathing space, but they chose to fight one last time, refusing to board that plane. It has been that kind of a tournament for them.
Every team wants to win the World Cup, even the minnows dream about it despite them not being good enough to progress beyond the first round. Come to think that is where the path ahead begins for everyone – get the initial roadblocks out of the way, gather enough momentum and even if that last bit is missing, never mind, just step into the knock-outs and feel satisfied with your achievements or push for more. The latter are invariably teams on the pinnacle of this sport and only once in a long while are there any surprises in the last four. England though have tried their best in every game not to reach that far.
It began against the Netherlands where they huffed and puffed their way to a last over win. Fatigue – mental and physical – was blamed for that one and it seemed to evaporate after the fantastic tie against India. Inexplicably then they lost to Ireland, switching off their concentration as it were, just like MS Dhoni’s team did after getting more than 300 runs on the board. They continued their slumber deep into the next game against South Africa, waking up and smelling the situation only when half the second innings was over. That they won that game despite defending only 170-odd should have been a huge turnaround.
Injuries to key players sapped any confidence that came in through the narrow win however. Stuart Broad bowled heroically and perhaps bowled himself out of the tournament. Kevin Pietersen gave up his struggle against hernia, meanwhile Paul Collingwood and James Anderson lost against poor form. Matters came to a head against Bangladesh when the dewy outfield nearly cut off their chances of victory and that meant West Indies had to be beaten. Like any of their five games prior, this match at Chennai too swung in more than one direction on more than one occasion.
At the end of it all though, England stand on the cusp of qualifying for the next round. The only complication to that effect will arise from Bangladesh upsetting South Africa on Saturday and then India losing heavily to West Indies on Sunday. Highly unlikely you would want to say but stranger things have happened in cricket. Even so Strauss and his men have to be pleased with themselves for making it thus far, albeit with slight difficulty. You can’t claim to be a top side in cricket by doing well in just one format, can you?
Thanks to their World Cup campaign being still alive, we can forget that question for another day and go back to the initial one. After making heavy weather of their group matches, can they really go all the way? Punters won’t lay too many odds on that, with only the quarter-final stage next up and they can’t be blamed. Knock-outs do not give you a second chance – you lose and you go home. But that is where England have trumped the odds, turning it around whenever they have been on the brink. Teams that end up champions tend to do that!
Australian domination for a decade meant that the last time we saw that happen was in 1999. Steve Waugh played a magnificent innings against South Africa to win a Super Six game and it haunted the Proteas no end in the tied semi-final. Kapil Dev did it for India in 1983 at Tunbridge Wells. For England there have been many moments – Strauss’ hundred against India, Broad’s spell against South Africa, Ravi Bopara’s all-round display in the latter matches, and the spin duo of Graeme Swann and James Tredwell taking seven wickets against West Indies. On hindsight, it has worked for them only in patches though, going wrong when it had to and not going right when the need be. Some luck from now on wouldn’t be a bad ask.
It has to begin with Bangladesh losing and India winning. Even the first result alone will do but it is the second one that will have most implications on their quarter-final match-up. Considering the Tigers do lose, England’s position in the top four will depend on what happens at Chennai. If West Indies win but do not win big enough, they finish second and India go third. As it stands at the time of writing, Strauss will then be making plans for either Australia or Pakistan at Mirpur. But if India win, they will face Sri Lanka in Colombo. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to know what the English skipper would prefer.
So, again, can they yet win the big prize? Confidence is a strange thing. It stands the test of time and skill, of luck and poor form, of fatigue and distractions. If you pass them all, rewards come forth in earnest. They could have exited the tournament after losing to South Africa, nearly did against Bangladesh and just saved it versus West Indies – no less than three times. Yet they are still here. It does sound ominous from whence we look back in future.
© Cricket World 2011