Significant Threat.

I was there when England scuffed and skipped, fainted and feinted their way past South Africa in the World Cup semi, in Bristol. It was, as they say, dramatic – dramatically bad for one’s equilibrium – whoever you happened to be supporting.

I do realise that that was a different time, place and format but sometimes it feels like there are *themes*, eh?

In the 50 over comp Heather Knight’s posse somehow came out on top but not before most of us England fans had bawled or tutted or cut out the middle person and shat ourselves. On the one hand, the subsequent, glorious victory at Lords squishes all arguments regarding England’s durability but on the other it feels true to also characterize the side with the rider ‘likes a wobble’.

They do – and we’ve already seen that in this WT20, during the win against Sri Lanka. In this game the first ball dismissal of Wyatt precipitated some pret-ty major, visibly contagious and relatively prolonged angst. So we approach the crucial game tonight, versus *arch-enemies South Africa with hope, yes but also with fear.

(*Arch-enemies? Can we still say that?!? There is a smidge of something approaching enmity, I suspect, between these two camps).

Strangely or boldly, England retain their 3 leftie spinners: can they/ will they do that against Aus? South Africa win the toss and opt to bat.

Lee, Wolvaardt, Kapp and van Niekerk are all players; by that I mean legitimate international players, with talent and experience. The concern around them is two-fold. Where is their confidence? Can they go at this?

The answer to question two is a resounding and disappointing ‘no’. Whisper it – for fear of encouraging more, bellicose negativity from male ‘traditionalists’ – but 21 of the first 24 balls… are dot balls.

The extraordinary aggression-void has engulfed South Africa in the same way it has smothered the ambitions of other teams in the competition. To the extent that this is in danger of not feeling like a competition – more a procession, led by Australia, where nominal rivals act out the role of opponents, rather meekly.

We can hope that India, the Windies and England may yet make a nonsense of this argument: Australia may not prove to be dominant. However the gulf in terms of intent between the Southern Stars and most others is striking… and a tad dispiriting.

But back to tonight’s opener – where sadly it is again as though the powerplay doesn’t exist (for South Africa) – or at least that part of the powerplay that opens up possibilities for the batters to clatter boundaries; that actively encourages it.

I have no doubt that this side of the game will develop in good time: more importantly a notably animated Charlotte Edwards bemoaning the generally disappointing lack of ambition (in commentary on TMS) goes on to repeatedly insist that a gear-change is completely essential. That gap must close.

Meanwhile wickets fall, the runrate continues to stall. 43 for 4 after 13 – but still somehow drama-less.

Knight claims a catch. Rather cheekily, according to the replay (according to Edwards); but the current England skipper is rather fascinatingly certain, even through the re-played denial. Kidding herself, being shamelessly competitive/cynical? Who knows?

Chloe Tryon belatedly launches; smites two sixes in quick succession. Can’t sustain it – caught off Sciver, to snuff out any real hopes of approaching 100. Tunnicliffe follows Tryon to the dressing-room. I can only imagine the trauma for Proteas supporters; the unambition, the disappointment seems endless.

Last over. Shrubsole skittles Ismail, has Klaas caught next ball off a leading edge then achieves the unthinkable-but-somehow inevitable by cleaning out Fourie. Hat-trick! Sciver’s wunnerful-ludicrous figures of 4 overs, 3 for 4 will rightly draw the eye of the cognoscenti but Shrubsole, again, will make the headlines.

Innings done at 85 all out. Okaay, South Africa’s strong suit is their bowling but at this stage it feels like they are about to be crushed. Except that England do like a wobble.

The spikes in quality continue. Klaas gifts England a four with a piece of fielding that is frankly humiliating: painful to watch. Wyatt blasts away with intent and some style. A different level of commitment to run-scoring – or just running.

With an angry Ismail putting it all in there, Beaumont drives her beautifully through firstly midwicket, then extra cover. Both times for four. Proper Top Level Cricket. Important for a tournament still disentangling itself from perceived mediocrity.

General note on this: I think all of us who genuinely enjoy supporting women’s cricket struggle around how to pitch any criticism. Better for female voices to do it. It’s not easy. But clearly learning can come from criticism as well as praise.

Very much on the plus side, Dani Wyatt is energetic, watchable and – tonight – has gotten swiftly into her flow. She belts through a series of borderline singles, diving to gain her ground at some cost to her physical safety. In simple terms, there is no comparison between the approach of the English openers and the preceding South Africans.

Come the end of the powerplay, England are 41 for 0. (South Africa were 24 for 1).

The Wyatt and Beaumont partnership are past cruising, at 55 for 0. Into, or possibly disappearing towards that dreamland where Statements Are Really Made. Could they do this in 12 overs, for none down?

No. Van Niekerk’s loopy leggies get Wyatt, clunkily, behind her legs,  premeditating a sweep but ultimately looking rather daft.

Sciver does something similar, to Daniels, walking to off and being bowled leg stick. After 10, England are 59 for 2. Then Beaumont gifts van Niekerk a further wicket, booming directly to long on.

With Amy Jones now joining captain Heather Knight it does feel like England have sufficient quality remaining to find the required runs. This they do. 87 for 3, ultimately. They’ve eased there, in truth.

Maybe it’s as well that Jones and Knight – both 14 not out at the close – have had some more time in the middle. Maybe. Certainly Jones will have enjoyed clubbing Ismail so emphatically through the covers and blasting the winning runs. Likewise Knight will have loved the two beautiful straight drives she stroked – and I do mean stroked – downtown.

But there may also be that minor frustration around the possibility for a 10 wicket job. Wyatt and Beaumont were simply playing at a higher level than the South African batters. Both got themselves out in their 20s, when plainly bigger scores – and additional psychological advantages – were there for the taking.

Maybe scratch that? Maybe we should be simply enjoying a thoroughly convincing win against traditionally competitive rivals? Maybe save Ultimate Ruthlessness Mode for the teams – Windies, India, Australia – who pose the most significant threat. Maybe don’t even note in passing, that there was no discernible wobble here.

Played, England. Good to see you so focused, so positive. Good to see you enjoy the win. Move on; you’re in this, now.

First up… plus.

Trains don’t always ease inviolably, powerfully, unarguably through the countryside. This one does. Temple Meads to Newquay – though I’ll only enjoy that first, woody, sunkissed, quietly triumphant forty minutes -before the cricket.

The lustrous green and baking haylage turns to… Taunton. Shockingly, my first Taunton. For a much-anticipated festival to which I am kinda proud and excited to #showup for. EngvSAvNZ, in what promises to be spectacular conditions. Grab a coffee and let’s get into this.

Somerset do support – there is a culture for that here, for simply getting cricket. When I arrive, 11.20-ish, the word is that a complete sell-out is possible. How fabulous would that be? I quickly establish that the lovely Raf Nicholson is, indeed, a Raff, as opposed to a Rav, as she might be in Wales. I’m settled, almost behind the bowler’s arm.

Enjoy, as always, the warm-ups. Especially the potential frisson frenzy as England bats undergo a medium-stressed net *immediately next to* the charging South African pace bowlers. Then the daft but visibly enjoyable footie keepy-uppies. Then some really challenging boundary catches: England showing good hands, good agility and real commitment.

Ntozakhe opens. Shocker of an early dismissal for Wyatt. Truly awful mis-club of a tame, wide ball. She’ll be rightly furious. Taylor is in for the last ball of the first over.

Enter Kapp, off a reduced run, bowling medium-quick. Taylor is gifted a legside boundary then follows that up with another, confidently despatched. England have started now.

Or maybe not. Two chances follow in quick succession; Beaumont drilling one hard at mid-off’s feet, then dancing down and missing. She gets away with both. After 4, Taylor having majestically drilled then cut Kapp for further, successive fours, England are a decent 29 for 1.

Beaumont follows that with a classic, lofted straight drive which long-on can’t get to. The see-sawing of fortunes and confidences continues, though, as Beaumont miscues Ntozakhe just over the bowler’s head. Things feel strangely mixed: confirmed as Taylor doinks Ismail’s very first delivery to point, via the top of the bat-face. Gone for 20.

Skipper van Niekerk is in for the 9th. I’m really hoping now, to see a fluent, full-blooded, next-level innings from Sciver. Feels like she needs that – and we know she’s got it in her. Beaumont, meanwhile, is scurrying and placing competently.

Mali offers something different. Not quick but maybe a little swing – or certainly something leg-cutterish which challenges the swinging across-the-line tendency.

In the 12th, she has Sciver caught in the deep, swatting big, swatting across. Just me, or does the England allrounder really need to make a very strong contribution, soonish? Not that her place is under threat… but she keeps under-achieving, given all that talent. Brunt is in, and she’ll need to substantially raise the energy and momentum.

She fails. Instead she plays and misses off Mali and is comprehensively stumped. South Africa almost certainly ahead, with England on 93 for 4, as Knight marches in. Not exactly panic stations, for England; more ‘concentrate then build powerfully’ mode.

At 122 for 4 after 17, with Beaumont and Knight bustling, typically, rather than booming, the likely score of 150 feels undercooked by twenty-plus. Meaning good job done by South Africa – meaning we have a real game ahead of us.

Another error in the field both costs South Africa a key wicket and gifts a precious boundary. (The visitors might have pocketed four additional wickets and saved twenty runs but for some troublingly poor fielding). Even if they go on to win – and I personally think they will – the coach will be *having words*, alright.

The Beaumont knock (solidly skilful rather than flawless and truly dynamic) is snuffed out by Ismail, who bowls her off the pads. In comes Jones and she and Knight cart and race through to 160 for 5 down at the close. This I like, in terms of a contest.

Fabulous moment, early in the reply, as Shrubsole cleans out Wolvaardt with *the most gorgeous* inswinger. Absolute class.

However – rightly and predictably – South Africans Lee and Luus set about the target with some purpose; violence, even. Knight responds by mixing up the bowling. We’re at 50 for 1 after 6.

Gunn is in. Last time I saw this it was a clear signal for the opposition to attack. Surprisingly, Lee plops one straight back at the bowler, who is maybe a tad sluggish, clawing but not catching. Can hear Sky commentary suggesting Gunn may be a decent option on this pitch; hope she is but fear she may again prove too hittable.

Talking of which, Ecclestone is heaved contemptuously over the square-leg rope before dragging one shockingly down to offer an easy four.

After Hazell serves up the tenth, South Africa are easing away at 84 for 1. Significantly, England’s fielding has been almost as disappointing as their opponents. Shrubsole, I’m afraid, is having a mare.

Ecclestone concedes another six to Lee – who has blazed to 67, including six sixes – come the end of the 12th, which costs 13 runs. England facing a pasting, here.

Shrubsole offers a glimmer, by removing the seemingly immovable Lee – caught deep-midwicket. England need an avalanche of wickets, mind, to haul this back. 120 for 2, off 14. Gunn returns.

*Thinks*… if, as seems likely, England lose, will the gaffer (Mr Robinson) politely ask his side if they may have been a little complacent, going in to this? Wyatt’s early horror-show plus other unconvincing or ill thought-out contributions will demand enquiry.

In fact the coast home for the visitors doesn’t quite materialise; or as Brunt sees out a goodish 16th over the momentum has maybe twitched. Gunn has the following over, which is quietish and includes a painfully cruel leading edge which loops back over the exasperated bowler.

But Gunn follows that with a wide full toss – despatched. Just 20 need from the last three overs.

Oof. Ecclestone bowls van Niekerk first ball of the over. Then dot ball… and the crowd are really back into this. Especially when Ecclestone also bowls Tryon – with one that looked a bit shortish, ‘live’. A game: what a bonus!

Shrubsole will bowl the penultimate over and (firstly) Brunt can’t stop a drilled drive for four then (secondly) Sciver spills a regulation catch at mid-on. If I’m the fielding coach I’m ab-so-lutely fuming.

Time has stopped; or warped; or coughed up All The Drama Ever. It’s mad and it’s magic and it leaves us, remarkably, with South on 152 for 4, needing 160, with six delivers remaining. Bloo-dee Hell.

Luus swings Brunt out backward square-legwards first up. Towards the fielder. It’s wide enough; it’s four. Next ball is cut through cover: South Africa have levelled.

Nope, they’ve won. In style, Luus hauling yet another six to square leg. England have a) done well to render this remotely close b) played relatively poorly, all-round. Tough ask to pick themselves up after that and go again.

 

Longish break – really nice to luxuriate in that. Then lovely to see England gals out and back into a visibly gigglacious footie circle-keepy-uppie effort. The disappointment gone, apparently. Hope it really is – genuinely hope they can enjoy all this. It’s both serious and a game, eh? As Vaughanie would say – ‘on, on!’

 

 

 

Worcester; Part Two.

Posted this immediately after the South African innings. Go back one post to check out how the England knock went.

 

Opening salvoes. Brunt first, to Lee; bowls full and straight. England seem suitably bristly and busy in the field – need to be, immediately. They are noisy and bright, knowing they must make something happen. After two fairly uneventful overs the visitors are 2 for 0.

Then the breakthrough: Wolvaardt, ball that seamed in at her. Inevitably, it’s Brunt, who sends her off before leaping in that Proper Pumped Fast Bowler stylee.

Ayup. Next over the fabulous Taylor stumps Luus, standing up to Shrubsole – confirmed by a tightish review. We going to get a game, after all?

Lee responds with the first boundary, off Brunt. And the second. South Africa are 14 for 2, off 5.

Shrubsole now getting appreciable inswing, Brunt bowling with her customary passion. Love the way the Northerner demands a wicket from herself – from everybody –  at least three times an over. Proper ‘quick’.

They really are a good combination, these two. Energy in the field remains high. But have South Africa settled? Maybe.

Predictably, Gunn is in for Shrubsole after four good overs. Equally predictably, Gunn is targeted and the runs suddenly flow. Lee and Van Niekerk are on 19 and 18 respectively after Gunn’s rather concerning first over – the tenth.

Ecclestone comes in for Brunt, at 43 for 2. Importantly, she drops onto a decent line and length but there’s a sense that the batters will counter forcefully; both striking freely against anything unworthy.

Is Gunn removed promptly, in favour of Sciver? No. Knight banks on her experience and unflappability… and Gunn settles. Important phase, in which South Africa control things, as opposed to surge ahead. After 15, they are 64 for 2.

Sciver is in for the 16th: she owes us one. Van Niekerk and Lee endure, with increasing, building authority; there are boundaries – sixes, even – as well as skilled resistance.

Things ebb and flow but as South Africa seem to have a measure of control (at 80 for 2), so it may be natural and reasonable enough to consider England’s weaknesses. Not, you understand, out of malice or premature negativity, but because the individuals, the environment must be durable to challenge. It comes with the profile, with the money, the expectation.

England are, of course pretty strong, being World Champs, but as greater investment comes in and the squad grows numerically, so the competitive nature of selection bites more brutally – or should.

Two players from the World Cup Squad missed out here, because (I’m guessing) Robinson and Knight want yet more dynamism, or a shift in the balance. At 16.26 p.m. with the South Africans having cruised through the period of second/third change bowlers, this mix feels like an area to be looked at.

Gunn, tremendous servant though she has been, is on that vulnerable cusp. But Sciver, Marsh and Ecclestone as a group did not back up the work of Shrubsole and Brunt and they, too find themselves in the Must Do Better category.

Ecclestone has to bowl well, not being a great athlete; Sciver is a real talent but we need more from her with the ball; Marsh has to play really close to her maximum in all three disciplines; Gunn is coming to the end of an illustrious career. To complete the rant, Shrubsole’s fitness is a concern: the team needs a couple more stars.

All this arises because England barely challenged Lee and Van Niekerk until Brunt then Shrubsole began the charge again – Shrubsole bowling the opposition skipper for an excellent 58. But this is not just about today.

Batting-wise, the lineup seems goodish… but they had a poor, poor day. However I don’t foresee too many occasions when all of Beaumont, Taylor, Knight and Sciver will fail.

Folks will inevitably compare today’s sloppy dismissals with The Blokes: unwise but so were the wickets – gifted away. Credit Brunt with breathing life into a performance that seemed fatally poor at 61 for 5 and then 80 for 7.

So England, in my humble view, need bowling. The fielding was good, the batting is or should be competitive at this highest level but the team lacks an edge with the ball; or rather needs more, quality options.

As Ecclestone starts the 33rd, South Africa are at 133 for 3. Minutes later, it appears Brunt has emphasised that star quality factor by executing a stirring catch deep in the outfield. It’s the sort of effort that reflects how her desire and power and athleticism set her apart. Turns out – after a long review – she never quite got there. The relieved but deserving Lee returns to her crease.

She is still there, on 77, into the 41st, as Brunt returns for her final fling at this. South Africa require just 27, with seven wickets left intact. The afternoon is now still and lovely, so if nothing changes in the next few minutes we’ll be applying the ‘s’ word to the visitors victory – serene.

Marsh is now firing them in flattish, from the New Road End but England are being quietly picked off. Occasional, incongruous music meets the boundaries that prick the calm.

Brunt is in for her last, the 43rd. She wills herself towards raising once more the contest… but it’s done.

Gunn must bowl the 45th. Her slower ball is just too slow,  too easily read and is carted to extra cover for four, leaving three needed.

Next over Lee kabooms Marsh for six to finish it. A deserved win for South Africa, who have emphatically outbowled and outbatted England. Lee is undefeated on 92 and Du Preez on 36. Whilst plainly England’s batting cost them the game, I’m left with more concerns about the bowling. Wonder if Mr Robinson feels the same?

Worcester.

8.40 a.m at Temple Meads and the train is rumbling agreeably in the sunshine. Cloud, yes, but the day is erring towards generous, cricket-appropriate offerings. I have a virgin century of minutes between me and New Road, in which to enjoy what I imagine will be mostly delightful-but-posh England.

It was green and buttercup full. It was chestnut-horsey. It was Yatey and Cam, rather serenely, malvernaciously lush; I liked it. Even when it turned greyer, four foot three from Worcester.

Brisk yomp to the ground, now equipped with the information that England are batting first. Smallish crowd have bundled through that hibernation-void-thing where womens’ cricket has laid up, these last few months, to stand and cheer, as the players stride out. Amy Jones faces the first ball, from Ismail. It’s full and it beats her.

I’m just querying Jones’s deep sit into her stance when she  uncoils a dynamic drive through extra cover for the first runs; four. She follows this up with a pull through midwicket, picking up the short ball encouragingly early; four more.

Beaumont gets off the mark with a streaky single to fine leg, off Kapp. Jones – in danger already of being affectionately labelled Jones the Bat – majestically clonks Kapp for another four through off. Outstanding start from her.

*Diverts briefly*. You may know me as an alarmingly positive geezer – I think I am. However I am again disappointed by the lack of support for this game. Sounds naff but the feeling has to be that these women simply deserve better. 13 for 0 off three, Jones has twelve of them. Really like her calm.

Beaumont is quality – we’ve seen that over the last year – but she’s mistiming here. No slips already though, for Kapp and then likewise for Ismail. Interesting.

In the fifth, Ismail gets one past the previously excellent Jones: scoots through her defences, bowled. The batter will be gutted with her swiftish 19; she’d looked in and confident. Enter Taylor.

Nice variety of length from the South African quick; certainly not afraid to go very full. Incoveniences Taylor but she squeaks a single to fine leg . Big Moment as shortly afterwards, Taylor is caught in front: killer length. England are 25 for 2 in the seventh over.

The incoming Knight gets off the mark with a half-volley past extra but is then also lbw, this time off a visibly pumped Kapp. Blimey. Trouble. Maybe particularly because Beaumont has hardly put a foot right yet. Some very strong players back in the pavilion; palpable sense that Sciver has to take up residence.

Did I say, by the way, that sitting out it’s coolish? Have my All Stars jacket on – mind you, did arrive in optimistically summery shorts and polo.

Sciver gets going with a twiddle down wide of fine leg before a flukey under-edge beats the keeper. Fielding been blighted by two or three fairly crass errors, already, in fact – later it generally rallies.

Hey. Maybe they don’t need the fielders, anyway?Beaumont skittled off another inside edge by the newly arrived Khaka.

All change on the bowling front as the slightish, smallish Ntozakhe offers the first spin. Sciver and Wyatt set about rebuilding, after 11.53, in sunshine – or at least brighter conditions.

Disaster – or maybe ‘disaster?’ – as Scivers mistimes one coming across her from Khaka, spooning it to midwicket. (On reflection it may be that Sciver made it look like it was coming across her, by doing that characteristic swing-across-the-line thing. Whatever. Horrible dismissal at a cruel time). England have bombed to 61 for 5 in the 17th. We’ve all gone quiet.

Almost unbelievably, Wyatt then cracks one straight at cover; again Khaka is the bowler. This is close to embarrassing, now; embarrassingly irresponsible. Please god the current, experienced pairing will play with some circumspection for ten overs. Otherwise England may be 100 all out.

Come the end of the 19th, Khaka is 3 for 13. On the plus side, more folks have joined us in the crowd.

Kapp changes ends, for the 23rd, with the score at 67 for 6. She generates good, slingy power, hurrying and then beating Brunt off a ten pace run. Ntozakhe continues, for her seventh. The game has gone to sleep, in a good way, for England.

Ismail returns after the one over from Kapp, with Brunt and Gunn exuding or projecting calm. Brunt just about keeps the lid on her predilection towards violence, as Ntozakhe wheels away at her.

Tryon becomes the game’s fifth bowler in the 26th, bundling in, rather, to offer left arm medium pace (plus?) Our first musically-enhanced boundary for aeons comes from the other end, mind, as Brunt sweeps the spinner forward of square leg.

Next over Gunn chips Tryon to backward point and England sink further. 80 for 7. England’s opening bowlers (Shrubsole has joined us) now need to bat for twenty overs, near enough, to give us a match. Ouch. Ntozakhe has walked through her potentially vulnerable ten overs of offspin for 21 runs.

Van Niekerk bowls the 34th and the changes continue as Ismail returns to partner her. But England’s miseries are compounded by a runout; Shrubsole departing for 7. (It was tightish but why the risk? We need something remarkable to happen, now, for this to be any kind of contest. Don’t we?) 97 for 8.

Ismail – fine, fine athlete – scents blood and is racing in to slap it in there. Brunt cops a bouncer.

To (theoretically) finish this sharpish, Kapp is back, too. However no immediate dramas. There is some irony in the cheers for the England 100. Feels like South Africa have been good but England somewhere between mediocre and bloody foolish.

Tryon and Khaka return, to mix this up. I wonder though, if the Ismail/Kapp combo *might actually* have closed this out but this is admittedly a hunch, given that Khaka’s figures seem to suggest she too, is a singular threat.

Marsh nearly offers another friendly leading edge to the onside field, off Tryon but it falls short. Brunt is going well, on 31, at this point.

England get to 148 in the 45th, as Brunt skilfully guides Ismail to third man. A slightly laboured ver-ry much slower ball then deceives Marsh, who is bowled for 15. Big question is… can Brunt get to a heroic 50?

150 up in the next, from Van Niekirk. Ismail returns to try to bounce out Ecclestone – nearly succeeding, as the England number 11 (/71) edges one highish behind. Fortunately Brunt gets back on strike and charges Kapp to drive straight for four and a well-appreciated fifty: she goes on to claim 13 runs from the over.

The day has brightened, or re-brightened as innings closes at a creditable 189 for 9. Brunt is undefeated on her highest score in any format – 72. Don’t expect this to be enough but given where England were… this is Bruntastic.

The break. So some other stuff…

The improved and expanded contracts for England Women announced yesterday are, of course, welcome. They represent meaningful lumps of money that may be the difference between living reasonably comfortably (as an elite athlete) and not. The notion that an increased number of our leading players will be on professional contracts is a) an important, further step forward and b) maybe more palatable than the idea that parity with The Men is some distance away.

The rather fascinating context to all this remains utterly framed by the (in this instance) magnificently prescient Australian authorities, who – despite the recent developments in England – have about four times as many women players on pro contracts as the ECB do. And be on better contracts.

In short things are better than they were but… yaknow.

The Big improved Picture suggests that we still lack a total commitment to broadening and deepening a substantial ‘viable’ pool of women professionals. This is achievable but implies funding a further hike in activity in the levels below, as well as paying more professionals a living wage – a wage commensurate to their level.

The money is surely there; the Aussies are kinda doing it; it’s right. Let’s join in.

Bristol-bound.

Who knows why, exactly, England were intent on Bristol? All the talk was of staying there – to the point where those of us born north of Filton (or Watford) feared a further outbreak of naff regionalism. What’s wrong with Derby, people?

Whatever the mindset, or the prejudice, or the preference for south-west softiedom, in the final group game Heather Knight’s Mainly Blue Army secured their stay in the artsy, freewheeling, café-rich capital of Almost Cornwall via another emphatic win.

Emphatic in the end.

The game v W Indies had gotten rather stuck, firstly when England’s batting spluttered and stalled, secondly when the opposition – kinda weirdly – forgot the object is to get runs, even when under pressure. England coasted in, towards the semi’s, towards more Bristol, as West Indian eyes glazed over in quiet submission.

Hang on, now. This under-appreciates both the fact of England topping the table come the end of the group stage and the level of their superiority (particularly in the field?) against Taylor, Dottin and co. However there may be concerns about how England batted against spin: if the West Indies had generated any kind of momentum with the bat, the spells when Fletcher’s legspin traumatised the English might have been pivotal. Ultimately, they were not.

The end-of-group-stage report, then, is stamped with a B+. Robinson’s developing posse are ahead of expectation but with a little work to do: that’s what things point to.

But let’s extrapolate around this presumption/expectation thing. One of the great things about tournaments – about sport – is surely the fabulous rich nonsense about form? About ‘the place you’re in’ as a team or player. About predictivity and quality surplanting or expressing their superiority over the now.

England, even an England who may believe in Process, not Pressure, will of course will be preparing towards A* in order to win this thing. Take care of, indeed treasure, respect, groom and perfect the process and the results tend to take care of themselves. This is the contemporary mantra, right?

Okaaay, get that but what if the knockout matches get scratchy or messy or weather-affected or fall into that mildly nauseous listlessness ‘cos somebody just can’t make it happen? Impossible (arguably) to entirely prepare for wobbly underachievement or nerve-jangled looseners flung two feet down leg. By humans.

C+ really might do it; in today’s semi against the South Africa they smashed for 370-odd against earlier; in the final beyond. Maybe?

That previous meeting – a boomathon where both sides carted the ball to the boundary with what you would imagine was confidence-building glee – will register, naturally. Player X will remember Player Y’s slower ball, or the way they shift early in the crease. Stuff will be learnt. But how great that sport won’t let it be the same, today: that the learning might be unlearned or mean nothing?

I take my seat behind the bowler’s arm at the Ashley Down Road End and reflect that in almost every sense England are ‘ahead on points’… but so what?

Bristol is fine. The outfield is lush green, with the odd pock-mark. It’s 70-odd degrees, at 10a.m. You’d say it’s a batting day and sure enough, South Africa, having won the toss, opt that way. Likely they think the track should be decent and relatively benign but may offer their spinners something in the second dig.

Brunt to open up for England. Fine leg & deep third man. Poor start – first ball raw & down leg – despatched. A wide, later. Nine off the over and not much encouragement.

Shrubsole. Touch of inswing? Retrieves things with a great over.

Brunt settles. Fuller. Beats the bat. 13 for 0 off 3.

Shrubsole continues in exemplary fashion.  Deservedly gets her woman in the fourth but… successful review from SA. No matter; she bowls Lee in the fifth. I punch the following into my notes.

Make no mistake. Shrubsole is quality. Superb, controlled spell.

Nothing, meanwhile, has happened for Brunt. Been okay but she’s frustrated. End of her fourth over she hacks at the crease with her boot.

33 for 1 off 9. 41 for 1 at 10 (first powerplay). England would surely settle for that? Few boundaries, South Africa closer to timid than watchful.

Enter Sciver. Competent. Enter Marsh. Flighty offspin – nice. Then drops one tad short. Punished.

Chetty is sharply stumped by Taylor off Sciver. We’re at 48 for 2 in the 12th, with Eng quietly dominant; young Wolvaardt cool and enviably composed but simply too passive.

We let out our first, synchronised Munchian cry as the opener tries to break out by clumping Hartley but instead offers an obvious c&b which the bowler simply isn’t sharp enough to take. Clanger.

South Africa get to 100 for 2 in the 26th.

Knight steps forward and immediately makes things happen – good and bad. Wolvaardt plays round one that barely deviates (125 for 3 in the 32nd) then the skipper drops the incoming bat next ball… but Kapp is run out in any case in the same over. Deep breath and it’s 126 for 4.

A word about the fielding. Over the whole piece it was consistently goodish but again there were poorish drops and occasionally sluggish movement – maybe particularly when a full-on dive was called for.

Into the second powerplay and it feels faaar too quiet from a South African point of view. Brunt is now bowling to her level, mixing it up. 158 for 4 at 40 feels under-par and the lack of will to accelerate feels unwise. First six of the innings comes in the 41st. (I believe, incidentally, that England struck none. Go check?)

Gunn gets a regulation c&b in the 42nd. At 170 for 6, with the runrate close to 4, on this pitch, in real heat, the consensus around me is that this is inadequate. Du Preez makes 50 but off 86 balls: it seemed too slow.

The reply. Winfield steers a four through the covers first over. Ismail second & fourth overs; fluent, athletic, to be respected. England watchful, knowing steady should see them through.

Kapp finds a decent rhythmn at t’other end. Finds the edge too but a sharp chance is dropped by the keeper. Just me, or is Winfield looking a tad wooden? 19 for 0 off 4.

Then things get a bit loose from the visitors: wides bowled down leg from Kapp, no-balls – meaning free-hits – from Ismail. Winfield takes her opportunities and suddenly England are at six-plus an over, significantly ahead.

Against the flow of it – although not entirely out of character for her innings – Winfield slashes rather lazily to gift South Africa a way back in. Caught, skied. Enter Taylor, who announces herself with a beautifully steered cover drive. 52 for 1 after 10.

Beaumont has been mixed; she is bowled Khaka on a slightly scratchy 15.

First spin in the 16th – Van Niekirk. With Taylor and Knight beginning to settle the legspinner may need to have some impact. She is controlled, in the main but no obvious threat. The experienced English pair move untroubled to 87 for 4 after 20.

Out of the blue, Knight offers an ultra-sharp chance to the keeper, off Khaka. Again not taken. Second leggie Luus is now on from the Pavillion End. Little bit of slow turn but England are (reasonably enough) playing circumspect cricket – meaning the rate of scoring has slowed a little. 100 up for 2 in the 24th.

The drift persists. The crowd become aware of the dangers implicit in England sitting on this. Ultimately the batters seem to recognise the same and look to lift the tempo, before the impressive Taylor is rather frustratingly run out on 54.

What had seemed prudent begins to seem indecisive – foolish even. Khaka’s figures (announced to some applause) of 10 overs 2 for 28 do seem more a result of lack of dynamism from England than brilliant bowling, in truth.

After 30, England are a mere 2 runs ahead. Low-grade tension broils.

Now Luus bowls an awful over but Knight inexplicably carts a full toss straight to square leg. Eng are proferring a game where it seemed there should or would be none.

Inevitably, Sciver is bowled and suddenly Eng are 146 for 5, with Brunt and Wilson new to the crease. Meaning Pressure.

A fluxxy, flashy, inconclusive period finds us at 170 for 5 off 41, with 5.5 needed per over. This is a game – a proper tense competitive one, now. A knockout.

South Africa have gone with 7-2 or 6-3 fields over these key overs. It’s worked because England have neither been brave enough to dance and pick a spot legside nor skilled enough to hit through the offside masses. When Brunt is bowled for a disappointingly subdued 12, England look in trouble. Is there a grandstand finish, or nervy calamity in the offing? And what did I say about fabulous nonsense?

Van Niekirk rings the changes every over – boldly and clearly with some success. But a possibly disoriented Kapp (a zillion changes of end) bowls two consecutive wides as Eng profit during the 45th. We’re into the excruciating, brilliant, cruel, seemingly too-directionless-to-result-in-anything end-game.

6 needed. Gunn and Wilson look to be bringing Engalnd home but then Wilson gets unnecesarily cute -scoops behind.

Last over. Can’t talk or write. Marsh bowled! 2 needed. Lols like you wouldn’t believe… and in comes Shrubsole.

A connection. 4. A game that almost got stuck violently coughs out the final drama. World Cup Final, for England.  Wonderful, messy, exhausting sport. Congratulations. C+.

 

Postscript; because I have time, unusually; because I’m a dumb bloke writing about women.

C+ sounding a bit mean? Got there because at that extraordinary end, my second thought was how Robinson might view things. (First thought was WHOOOOPPPEEE!!, by the way). I reckon he’d be ecstatic, relieved and furious.

Ecstatic and relieved to be in the final – to have achieved and possibly over-achieved(?) But also furious at some errors and I’m guessing particularly at the drift when his side batted. Robinson will know that Taylor’s excellence was nearly frittered away because his side lacked dynamism… when surely this is the one thing he has looked for?

England are morphing swiftly and encouragingly towards the athletic, skilled excellence underpinned by positivity that their coach and the world-game demands of them. In Bristol they won a gut-churningly outstanding victory without convincing us that they’re where they wanna be yet. That’s fine. The revolution – the chase – goes on.

 

 

What’s in a name?

A B de Villiers: great name.  Smacks, to us Brits, of something powerfully and maybe romantically other, something distinctive, emphatic and emphatically South African – whatever that means.  But is it simply that de that’s effecting a statement somewhere between the territorial and the unapologetically forward? Why is that name working in the way it does?

Blimey.  Possibly dangerous ground.  Not going anywhere near the complex/unfortunate/shamefully traumatic political stuff.  Just hold with that question about what it is that trammels up the feeling, the expectation, the response to that name.

This may be ridiculous.  How we receive a human’s label obviously depends upon a zillion cultural mores (or lesses) and how that name now conjures with us is contingent upon what we know about the bearer of that flag of peace, war, convenience, whatever.  In this case we’re plainly talking ’bout a prodigiously talented sportsman who happens to cart those two words (one and a bit?) round on the back of his cricket shirt(s). So it’s simple – right?

It’s simple in that we are denied the possibility for doubt or equivocation, with de Villiers.  He is rare, he is typically majestic – or that’s the picture over the years.  Whether you’re from Transvaal or Tranmere you get that he’s a bona fide worldie.

This becomes interesting (to me) because of recent events – and I’m not just thinking the withdrawal from upcoming Tests, although clearly this has been the trigger.  The notion that the impregnable de Villiers brand – speaking incontrovertibly of expressive, somehow lusty brilliance – flirts now just a little with human frailties, with ‘management’, with (if not indecision) then with compromise, feels frankly a little de-flating.  (Soz.)

Granted some will argue that A B de Villiers has chosen to go a certain route – namely to play IPL, miss a lot of international cricket, then target a return against India and Australia.  Granted also there are complications beyond his control re- an elbow injury demanding surgery; plus that great unknowable around motivation appears to be increasingly relevant.

But I am sensing more fogginess than clarity, more difficulty than direction .  So where is de Villiers at… and what’s occurring around his imprint, his quality of presence, his reputation?

In interview with ESPNcricinfo yesterday, the theme of essential ‘time away’ loomed so large as to make some of us a little concerned – for a couple of reasons.

A) because it’s disconcerting to see a magnificent athlete of the alpha-male variety looking just a little lost.

B) because (selfishly) I’d rather all the best players committed to all the Tests they can.

As an innocent and pret-ty unbiased bystander, one interpretation of current de Villierdom might reasonably be that he’s just finding that work/life/family life balance thing tough to manage because, largely, he has simply, maybe temporarily, stopped enjoying playing.  Which is a proper shame: which also smacks of some degree of loss, or retreat?

It may be reckless to throw too many assumptions at this. This particular guy – every particular guy, or gal – has every right to dip out, now and then, to take stock, to replenish.  Fair play, de Villiers has been open if not fulsome on that.

The upshot or fallout from the interview is

A)  We may not know exactly why he’s breaking from series A or B but we are feeling his need.

B)  We can’t know what’s really, really in his mind – maybe he doesn’t?

The result (or one of them) is indulgence of this sort – cod psychology, if you will – and/or extrapolations around themes: patriotism(!), frailty(?), great or despicable career management, falls from grace.  Oh and worry about the impact on Test Cricket.

Our own need to speculate is inevitable, given de Villier’s profile and his brilliance and the suspicion that there is a story there: whether we treat that story respectfully or gather it up into those fears around the threats to Test Cricket is another matter.

I’ll stop just short of that.  I’ll mention in passing the concern I have that the adrenalin-pull and financial clout of white ball cricket is a kind of drain, as well as an Absolute Blast – certainly when viewed from the traditionalists’ prism.  Whilst I really don’t consider myself as being from that wing of the game, I do absolutely regret both that energy-sapping schedules and players opting for short rather than longer form cricket may be undermining Tests.

Hype is arguably of its nature draining (I imagine) – perhaps particularly when expectation is so heavily loaded upon you, oh starry individual.  If you smash the fastest century ever (say) and generally perform to swashbucklingly boomtastic levels then not only are you riding an ecstatic wave but you are risking humiliating wipe-out. I think maybe I am momentarily fascinated (but it will pass) by the idea that the hike into T20 form and format mitigates towards exhilaration and exhaustion.  A hypothesis that feels kinda seductive… but sounds a moment later like utter cobblers.

A B de Villiers is a cricket titan; an icon, a giant, a genius, a worldie.  He has both that sumptuous, natural sportsman thing going on and the intellectual/technical wherewithal back up the gift.

Go find a youtube training vid and you’ll likely find him explaining his method, involving engaging the core by hitting late, under the eyes, within the imaginary box he visualises as an extension of his body.  It’s as though he’s allowing the ball entry into his system, his aura, before some wonderful coiled reflex propels it with both violence and control to the glorious horizon.

This way of things seems to embody not so much his hitting strategy as his personal confidence.  Waiting (when possible) rather than reaching – and then striking with formidable power.  It’s a method full of belief.

The name A B de Villiers may be cursed I guess, by South Africans who think they are more patriotic than him.  Who think he’s either gone soft or gotten greedy.  Who wheel out theories over bat contracts or bad karma.

Strikes me we don’t know if there’s a cynical plan in place here or simply that slightly heart-string-tugging plea for a break.  Much of the rest is baggage – inevitable, surely given The Age and the extraordinary quality of the talent.  He’s a Big Name Player in a luridly curious world.

I cannot be clear (and therefore am not making the case) that de Villiers has sold his soul to some vulgar idol; after all, he says he aims to battle for a Test place in a year or so’s time.  I am also unsure if I have the right to feel disappointed – but I do.

Presumably that’s because I feel protective of Test Cricket and I worry a bit about who else might go opting out?  Because we can’t afford to lose too many de Villiers, eh?

Root and branch and lifeblood.

The argument (made by England skipper Eoin Morgan to the BBC) that Joe Root is the most complete batsman England have ever produced is a rather striking one. One we might reasonably and fairly immediately file under hyperbole; post-match, post-UNREAL swashbuckling victory euphoria. Because if ever there was a moment for delusional disproportion then this was it: Root being godlike in an environment from which most would have (actually) sought escape, one way or another. Instead Ar Joseph unflinchingly but beautifully built his way forward, denying the Munch-like scream of the moment, dismantling the Proteas attack.

For this most English of English heroes to dismiss the whirlwind around him with such calm, such style and without resorting to the violent bludgeoning of the innocent ball was remarkable… and maybe remarkably attractive and rich and necessary. Whether Root’s genius catapaults him beyond England’s Finest Ever is another matter. Frankly I’m not going there; not now; not without several clarity-inducing beers inside me.

Instead let’s pop back into the broader arguments. T20 is clearly the coming force but if there is a concern around its appeal this may centre over the car-crashness, the impact-frenzyness, the potentially divisive or even repulsive quality of the Boomathon that it has become. (I know! Tad perverse to intuit the least concrete reservations of a tiddly proportion of traditionalist fans here but stay with me; a Bigger Picture will emerge. Judge me then.) Where were we?

T20. Yes we love it and need it to make us relevant into a new age. Yes we accept that there is some meaningful upskilling going on as well as possible subversions to Wise Old (Longer Format) Truths – fielding and levels of ingenuity in both batting and bowling codes being notable contributors to the positives here. And yes, critically and unanswerably, we acknowledge cricket is suddenly unthinkable without T20.

But in the ever-fuller gallop, are there implications for the sustainability of all this – or more precisely, are there dangers in being T20-centric? Is there something inevitably concerning about a dynamic charge – a revolution – that is so-o relentlessly breathless? My answer to that is I’m not sure, that I am uneasy with the consideration-vacuum implied, that I do wonder.

Again I fear the accusation of miserablism. So I repeat my allegation that I am the least miserable/most enthusiastically positive bloke I know and that I support and accept forward energy as our lifeblood. I also get that excitement means numbers and that maan, we need numbers.

There must be debate about how T20 feels and looks and evolves and is structured or levered into our domestic structures but yup – there must T20. The question (or one question) might be whether people weary of the smashes, the fireworks, the ramped-up ramp-shots? And how, if boom-fatigue did set in, could we plan or address that easing back? Where does cricket go if (let’s say) new supporters tire of seeing Gladiator X carve his way to another killing?

Backtracking into my crease, I accept this scenario simply may not arise. Maybe I’m just casting the idea out there to see if anyone understands the universe this way(?) The fact that Root and de Villiers (for example) span the ludicrously operatic skills-dimension with such majesty and ease suggests T20 will never be the brittle theatre I almost fear. Long may their talent keep us safe.

Certainly the Yorkshireman made a nonsense of my argument yesterday. He/we can’t claim he did it solo – not after the stunning barrage from Hayes and Roy – who sent Steyn (arguably the best and toughest and canniest genuinely quick bowler in the world, remember) packing. Root did still, however, come in with the proverbial ‘lot to do’. He then performed beyond the capacity of nearly everybody on the planet – hence that hyperbole from his captain.

He steered the ball as much as he smote it. He seemed – absurdly – to be in his element whilst we were either delirious or contemplating a brisk walk out until things were done. It was one of those personal triumphs that go beyond the tribalist norms; he was rapturously received, when his effort was cut tantalisingly short, by an almost entirely neutral crowd. He might almost have been at Headingley.

Morgan was effusive in part because of the natural excitement following an audacious and vital win but also because Root really is special.

Comparisons are fatuous with previous eras because now is so obviously and uniquely Peak Dynamism. Sobers or Botham or Boycott or Bradman – who all faced fearsome opposition – faced nothing like the levels of athleticism we’re seeing now. The context was substantially different and probably less challenging in terms of its range; despite uncovered pitches etc etc. We could conceive of Sobers and Botham being transported into the modern era and adapting (probably remaining gloriously god-like, in fact) but many of us would rather simply deny the validity of joining any of these crazily abstract dots.

What we could reasonably extrapolate, however, is that Joe Root is pret-ty masterful across the cricket arts. He has the technical brilliance and temperament to be a genuine Test Star. He has the running and the hands of a short-format hustler. He has, as yesterday confirmed, the timing and craft to power his way towards the unthinkable in T20. Even when the pressure is mega-epic-acute.

Joe Root is our world star. He’s precious not simply because of his tremendous gifts, but his personality – his capacity to return us to simple, joyful matters of sport. That boyishness. He’s great company, too, being plainly a ‘good lad’, ‘one of us or ours’, a charmer and a laugh. But let’s value him higher yet; in covering all bases across the playing formats, making the case for skill as well as muscle, he may be holding the whole shebang together.