This was the moment England cricket had been waiting for.
Four years after the 2015 World Cup debacle, they have reached the summit clash. The final stop in an arduous journey that started with transforming the way they played and viewed white-ball cricket.
For too long, England were ‘also rans’ in limited overs tournaments, apart from 2010 World T20 triumph, while maintaining their focus on red-ball cricket. While teams like Australia – and recently India – had mastered the art of being competitive in all forms of cricket, England need a booster shot to get their house in order for the home World Cup in 2019.
With Andrew Strauss as the director of cricket, Eoin Morgan – with Trevor Bayliss as coach – was given a free hand to revitalise their white-ball cricket. And what they have managed in four years is nothing short of revolutionary.
Very few can claim to change the way the game is played. England can legitimately be called pioneers of a new form of ‘total cricket’ that emphasises attacking from the outset – with the ball, in the field and especially with the bat.
In the years leading up to the World Cup, England had perfected the art of batting the opposition out of the match with scores of 350 and above with a regularity never before seen in the game. It is no surprise that the two highest scores in ODI cricket – 444 and 481 – were scored by England in the last three years.
Morgan’s boys were expected to coast into the 2019 World Cup semis but surprisingly slow and challenging pitches, plus a shock defeat to Sri Lanka and then to Australia, saw them wobble. With their backs to the wall, England defeated India and New Zealand to enter the last-four.
There, Australia won a crucial toss in Birmingham and it looked like the defending champions would run away with the game in good batting conditions. But Chris Woakes and Jofra Archer gave the Aussie top order a lesson for the ages – and the upcoming Ashes – as the defending champions could only muster 223.
If Aaron Finch though his quicks would do what the Kiwis did to India’s batting line-up, he was in for a shock as Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow hit Mitchell Starc and co with such force, they didn’t know whether to hold fort or retreat.
Australia had never lost a World Cup semi-final, but Thursday saw a crushing first as England chased down the runs with more than 100 balls to spare.
Next up for England are New Zealand in the final at Lord’s on Sunday. The entire cricketing world and also the whole of England – for the first time in 14 years now that cricket will be aired on free-to-air TV in the UK – will be watching Morgan and co pursue the elusive World Cup trophy.
Every era has its pioneers. England have without doubt set a new benchmark in ODI cricket.
On Sunday, a generation of youngsters in England that might struggle to even name the England XI will get to witness their own pioneers fight for a world crown. And if England do pull it off, they will truly be worthy winners.
Australia were comfortably second best in an Ashes-flavoured knockout at Edgbaston, bowled out for 223 after winning the toss and then blown off the park as their hosts raced to an eight-wicket win inside 33 overs.
Jason Roy batted brilliantly for a fierce 85 and leg-spinner Adil Rashid scooped tournament-best figure of three for 54, but Finch had no doubt about the key passage of play.
Shortly after winning the toss he was dismissed for a golden duck, lbw to Archer’s first ball, then watched as Woakes accounted for David Warner and Peter Handscomb in a compelling opening burst that left the away side 14 for three.
Australia might have found stability in the form of a century stand between Steve Smith (85) and Alex Carey (46), but they never managed to recover their lost momentum.
“All in all we were totally outplayed to be honest, all throughout the day,” said a dejected Finch.
“But the damage was really done with the ball. Definitely in the first ten overs of the game. It was a bit of a frantic start, three-for in the powerplay.
“They’ve got bowlers that hit the seam and if there is anything in the wicket, they will certainly get it out of it. Chris Woakes is a world-class bowler, puts it in the right area time and time again, and Archer is getting better and better.”
The result made Finch the first Australian captain to taste defeat in the last four of a World Cup and denied him the chance to add a sixth title to his country’s record haul.
Yet when he took over as skipper of an off-form and directionless squad last autumn, merely reaching this stage seemed fanciful.
He was left balancing conflicting emotions of pride and regret.
“In terms of where we were 12 months ago, obviously I think we have made a huge amount of progress and I’m really proud of everyone involved for how much hard work they’ve put in and how far we have come,” he said.
“But at the same time we came here today to win a semi-final and get ourselves into a position to win another World Cup.
“So it was really disappointing how it ended, especially to put up probably one of our worst performances in the tournament.”
England captain Eoin Morgan called seamer Chris Woakes one of the best new-ball bowlers in the world as the hosts crushed Australia by eight wickets to book a place in the 2019 World Cup final.
Woakes dismissed opener David Warner – caught at slip – and then castled new man Peter Handscomb to leave Australia reeling at 14-3, a position from where the Aussies never recovered. Jason Roy then smashed a whirlwind 85 as England reached the 224-run target with 107 balls to spare.
After the win, an elated Morgan hailed the match-winning spell of 3-20 from Woakes.
“He is a cool customer, goes about his business day in day out. He’s one of the best in the first 10 overs over the last couple of years. Him and Jofra (Archer) were outstanding and the other guys backed that up, which allowed us to stay on top,” Morgan said in Birmingham.
Man-of-the-match Woakes revealed the players were anxious and he was pleased to have contributed to a historic run to the final.
“I am speechless actually. Incredible performance from the team, starting with the bowling and the way the guys finished was outstanding. There were some nerves, a few anxious people in the dressing room. The way we produced the goods showed how good we are,” Woakes said.
England lost all three previous World Cup finals – against the West Indies in 1979, Australia in 1987 and Pakistan in 1992. Woakes said his team will try to block out thoughts of history and concentrate on the job.
“We have tried not to think about getting to the final, it hasn’t sunk in yet,” he said. “We were tipped as favourites so it was important to get to the semi-final in the first place and then to win this in this fashion against this Australia side on the best ground in the world is amazing.”