Kane Williamson and his team of thoroughly decent blokes will attempt to pull off the most indecent party pooping in the history of cricket on Sunday 14 July, at Lord’s of all places.
New Zealand are all that stand between England and the ICC World Cup coronation that they have planned for four meticulous years. The Black Caps have been here before, as they attempted something similar four years ago against Australia, in Melbourne.
That they fell short on that day was a sore point, but one that was assuaged by the memories they had made on their patch throughout the 2015 tournament. In truth, the Kiwis had played their final a few days before, when they outlasted South Africa in an unforgettable semifinal in Auckland.
That match captured the imagination of their rugby-mad nation, and the euphoria that came from scaling such a high peak was hard to reach against an Aussie team playing in front of 97 000 cricket-mad revellers. There was no shame in defeat. Indeed, the Kiwis were praised for their dignity in defeat, and all that they had given to a festival of fun Down Under.
That was then. This is now.
While England can point back to a long and winding road, pot-holed by disaster and tournament despair, New Zealand will speak of their own path to this hallowed place. In 2011, they were losing semifinalists. In 2015, they got to the ultimate stage, but it wasn’t quite their time. They will argue that the logical progression would be to take that final step, and break their own duck.
New Zealanders have banked on celebrating a World Cup triumph this year, but they would have figured it was later, when the All Blacks defend their crown in Japan. And yet, here Williamson and his men are.
Throttling India with patience
The manner of their two-day victory over India was in keeping with the character of this side under the assiduous Master Williamson. Quiet, calm and totally committed to the cause.
The first day had been a carnival of noise and colour, and Indian hope. Then the rain came, and doused that flame. Ravindra Jadeja was quite astonishing in his efforts to resuscitate the wounded giant, but even he must know that the men from the land of the long white cloud are at their most dangerous when they have got a whiff of blood in the water. When they have spotted weakness.
They took mighty India into deeper waters, and then throttled them with patience, instead of violence. And when India tried to come up for air, there were Trent Boult and Matt Henry, searching for souls with the new ball. There was Jimmy Neesham sticking out a mitt and seeing a catch stick.
There was Martin Guptill, throwing down the only MS Dhoni stump he had to aim at, finishing off the ultimate finisher. There was New Zealand, breaking a billion hearts, and then apologising for it. Williamson even pondered if the billion and more might adopt New Zealand, and get behind them in the final.
“The game of cricket is fickle in its nature, especially when it comes to the white ball. Whether it’s a semifinal or a final, nothing really promises,” the Kiwi leader half-smiled, confronting the very fine margins that had dictated Indian tears and Kiwi cheers.
For all their efforts to this point, New Zealand know that they have an even bigger mountain to climb in the final. If India felt entitled to reaching the final, England feel destined to be there. They have dreamt of their name being on that trophy, and of the effect that such a seismic moment might have.
Former players can barely contain themselves, having lived through some of the darkest one-day international times in English cricket.
“If England stay true to themselves, they will have an excellent chance,” former captain Michael Vaughan said simply.
If England can hold their nerve and keep taking corners with their foot on the pedal, they might just overwhelm New Zealand as they did to the Black Caps’ neighbours in the Edgbaston semifinal.
Coming back from the dead
“A couple of weeks ago, it looked like we were out and buried,” England captain Eoin Morgan smiled, immediately after hitting the winning boundary against Australia. “To be in this position we are in today is pretty special. We’ve played our best cricket at the back end, which obviously in World Cups is what you want to do.”
It was fitting that he hit the runs that took them home. English cricket has backed his wisdom, and the stay of execution in 2015 was a significant endorsement. They reckoned that they had the right leader, but just needed to change their way of thinking.
“Looking back to where we were in 2015, and where we will be on Sunday, there is a dramatic improvement to the style we play and the level of expectation that we’ve created. Everyone in that change room should take a massive amount of credit for that,” Morgan acknowledged.
Where England once stuttered, they now startle the opposition with their bravado. All three lions are roaring defiantly at once, emboldened by a very clear path to this point.
“We are absolutely delighted. The support from the crowds has been exemplary,” Morgan said of the mounting hysteria in the stands.
It will mount higher still, with Sky TV having agreed to air the final on free-to-air Channel 4 in the United Kingdom. That means that millions and millions may see Morgan usher in an unthinkable era for English cricket, at a time when the England and Wales Cricket Board is looking to recapture the spirit of 2005, when England beat Australia to win The Ashes.
If they win this World Cup, where they have ebbed and flowed, won and lost, discovered and disappointed, England will capture the spirit of 1981 when Botham and Willis battered Australia in The Ashes, 2005 and every other highlight in English cricket put together.
They have shed the stuffy tweed jacket, and donned a Technicolor steamboat, with rock stars Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow blasting the first metal tunes.
“They are very imposing upfront, and they are in the form of their life. It is a huge advantage for us, and they set the tone,” Morgan said of his haymakers upfront.
A New England versus New Zealand
Bairstow even picked a fight with the media just to get his competitive juices flowing even more freely. He responded to the melodrama with back-to-back centuries. But Bairstow and Roy are just one aspect of a team so lavishly gifted with options that they are even hard to beat on their bad days.
The individual brilliance of Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler, the cool Joe Root and Morgan himself. The speed of Jofra Archer and Mark Wood. The dependable Chris Woakes, and the guile of Adil Rashid and Liam Plunkett.
It is a heck of a team, playing at home, and with a lot of them in the very best form of their lives.
“It’s an opportunity. A huge one,” Morgan said soberly. “Making the most of that opportunity will be fantastic on Sunday, but getting there alone is awesome.”
In their way will be a New Zealand team that senses its own opportunity for something special.
“Experience at this level, and on these occasions, is so important,” Williamson noted.
Five of the current Kiwi side were in Melbourne four years ago. Williamson was but a shadow of the giant player he is now. If he stands as tall as he often has over the past six weeks, England and their collective will to win will be severely tested.
“It’s another great opportunity. To play in a World Cup final is something that’s rare. A special moment but, at the same time, we want to repeat the good things we did in this (semifinal) and treat it in a similar respect.”
The Kiwis accounted for the 2011 champions, while England dumped the defending champions.
Neither team has won a World Cup before. One of them will join an elite club that have lifted this trophy. New Zealand, as ever, are perfectly cast in the role of spoilers.
The thrill seekers, this brave New England, will have to trust the instincts that have got them to this fantastical plane. For four, tantalising years, they spoke of this possibility. It has turned into reality now, and England stand one perfect performance away from the greatest party that Lord’s has ever seen.
This is their moment, their trophy, their destiny. That is what they believe. Williamson and his buddies would tend to disagree.
It is one game of cricket, but seldom has it meant quite so much to both teams. Contrasting styles, contrasting characters. But there is a very common goal for both. One nation is about to rewrite its history books, while another will have to wearily add to its chapters of woe.
Lord’s, the eternal home of cricket, and its considerable history awaits. Cricket has come home.