Ben Stokes is treating England’s World Cup semi-final against Australia as the most important game of his career.
The England all-rounder is no stranger to the big stage, turning out for his country on 166 occasions across all formats and memorably stepping up to bowl the final over of the World Twenty20 final in front of 66,000 fans in 2016.
That did not go to plan, with West Indies all-rounder Carlos Brathwaite snatching an unlikely victory by clubbing Stokes for four sixes in a row, but Thursday’s game at Edgbaston represents something even bigger for the 28-year-old.
The opposition are England’s oldest and bitterest rivals, the prize on offer is once-in-a-generation game at Lord’s and the trophy waiting at the end is one the national side have spent 44 years chasing in vain.
Asked if the game ahead was the biggest he has experienced, Stokes said: “Yes, to date. Definitely.
“It’s a massive occasion for us as players and as a nation. Playing against Australia is a big occasion– in any sport. The rivalry goes way back and we have the Ashes this summer too. Beating them is that touch better than any other team.”
“I’ve had a few days off and got out of the bubble but when you come back to the team you get those butterflies again.”
England have dominated the last two one-day series against Australia, winning home and away as they established a win-loss record of 10-1 heading into the competition. The form book counted for nothing in the group stage, though, with the visitors landing a 64-run victory.
“Losing to them at Lord’s was massively disappointing so I think there will be a bit of redemption for that, knowing we have the chance to beat them and get to that final,” predicted Stokes.
He is less inclined to see the game as a chance for personal redemption. Having missed the last Ashes defeat Down Under following his well-documented brawl in Bristol – an incident that concluded with his acquittal on a charge of affray – he was welcomed back with warm, unconditional support from his team-mates.
“I don’t feel like I have to prove anything to anyone except myself,” he said.
“It opened my eyes up to a lot of things, two years ago, but I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. It’s just showing I can deliver on the biggest stage.
“Winning is the most important thing and if you can help the team out with an individual performance, that’s all that counts. People can say good things, bad things…it just won’t bother me.”
Australia have two players of their own who have had to deal with their share of public comment, David Warner and Steve Smith.
The pair are still just a matter of weeks into their comebacks after year-long bans for the sandpaper scandal and have been on the end of some icy welcomes from the British public. Warner in particular has thrived in the circumstances, scoring three centuries and three fifties in the tournament, while Smith has managed three half-centuries.
“I have huge respect for them for performing like they have coming back, being able to block all that out,” said Stokes.
“Respect to them for dealing with on-field pressures and the crowds, while still delivering.”
Stokes has also been standing tall in the tournament, averaging over 50 with the bat and under 30 with the ball.
Those numbers underline his importance to the side but it is another – an economy rate of just 4.65 making him England’s stingiest bowler – that gives him most satisfaction.
“It’s always nice to get runs but the most pleasing thing has been my bowling,” he said.
“I had a chat with Morgs (captain Eoin Morgan) and a few others in the team to get my head around my role. Being fourth or fifth seamer, I sometimes put too much pressure on myself to influence the game.
“So I spoke to them about not trying to take wickets every ball. That’s helped offer the team more. In the last couple of years it’s probably where I have let the team down.”
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Liam Plunkett has warned Australia that England are a “different sort of animal” to their predecessors.
The Ashes rivals meet in a hotly-anticipated World Cup semi-final at Edgbaston on Thursday, with Australia looking to continue their bid for a sixth title while England hope to stay in the hunt for their first.
In terms of tournament experience, the away side hold all the cards, as well as victories in the last four World Cup matches between the teams, but Plunkett says times have changed.
“They’ve been there and done it before but not against this bunch of players,” he said.
“We’re a different sort of animal compared to our last teams. We’ve played well for the past four years, we’re ranked number one and we feel in a good place. We feel on our day we can beat anyone in the world.”
Plunkett is the elder statesman of the current England squad, making his international bow as far back as 2005 and earning his previous taste of World Cup cricket 12 years ago in the West Indies.
He has had a front-row seat to the evolution of England’s one-day cricket and has never known a better mood.
“We had amazing players (previously) but I never thought we’d win a World Cup,” he said.
“We’ve made it exciting again. I’ve played in teams where we didn’t expect to win. With this squad the public expect us to win games and win series. It would be nice to finish this four-year cycle. This journey we’ve been on, with this group of boys, it comes down to this.”
At 34, Plunkett is unlikely to see service in four years’ time when the event heads to India, meaning the next few days represent the grandest stage of his career.
“I think so,” he agreed. “I don’t think I’ll play another World Cup so for me personally, it’s the biggest,” he said.
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Joe Root is hoping that England can inspire a new generation of cricketer fans by capturing the 2019 ICC World Cup trophy on home soil.
The hosts are yet to win a 50-over World Cup title but that drought is just two steps from being broken as they get ready to face arch-rivals Australia in the semi-final at Edgbaston.
Root is taking inspiration from England’s Ashes triumph in 2005 over Australia and hopes the current side can leave a similar impact on the nation.
“I can remember that 2005 Ashes as a kid and being really absorbed in that whole series at 14 years old,” Root was quoted as saying by ESPNcricinfo.
“It was magical. For us to have a similar opportunity, on a slightly different scale maybe, is very exciting. It is great to see people showing a huge interest in cricket and it is great that this group of players are playing their part in getting people interested.
“Every player wants to see the game grow and flourish so it would be great to be able to help do that by achieving something very special. I think it is one of the most pleasing things that you can do as a sportsman. It would be brilliant if we could take that even further by doing what we have done in the last couple of games.”
History is riding against England for Thursday’s clash with Australia yet to lose a World Cup semi-final in seven past meetings so far. However, the hosts will take comfort from their track record at Edgbaston where they have won their last 10 matches across all formats.
The Aussies, on the other hand, have not won at the venue in any format since 2001 with their last ODI victory at Edgbaston coming all the way back in 1993.