England’s Zombie World Cup Briefly Revived in Beguiling Win Over Pakistan

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And fade to blue. Don’t look back. Do not retain for archive reasons. On a deliciously restless night in Kolkata, and no doubt to the relief of all concerned with keeping its limbs twitching away, England’s tournament has finally expired.

The World Cup that kept on thrusting a hand up through the mud, coffin lid creaking, has now been exorcised, the last rites a decisive but always low-throttle defeat of Pakistan. There will be time to talk about goodbyes, time to talk about Rob Key’s promised reckoning-up.

For now, this felt like a shared farewell, both for a champion team and also, perhaps, for one form of the game. England’s collapse in India is at least in keeping with the tide of recent history. Is there any point at all in going through the necessary trials to present yourself as a youthful and committed 50-over cricket specialist over the next few years, a life choice that feels like prepping for the title of most vigorous furnace-man on the Titanic just as it comes barrelling out of Queenstown?

There will be time to perform that autopsy and time to consider how to move on. But watching this play out it was hard to avoid the feeling that the main character, the dominant presence on the night, was not so much the players of either side as Eden Gardens itself.

For all the end notes, there was something beautiful and consoling and also instructive about waving off England’s zombie tournament here. This is one of the great sporting grounds, a vast throbbing ziggurat of stands, walkways, and brutal looking gates, all gusts of boiling air and sweet herbal smoke, wafts of dosa and chicken, people milling to the edge of the outfield at every break to take pictures just because it looks so spectacularly beautiful, a place that always seems to be in a state of gorgeously functional decay.

Even the floodlights are captivating, a huge square grid of bulbs that sends the light filtering down through the smoke and mist like brilliant white rain. Cricket here feels epic, without trying to feel epic; like a condition of the blood, not an exercise in nationalism, or wallpaper for advertising.

At a time when cricket seems intent on garrotting its own structures and rhythms, Eden Gardens felt like a reminder of something warmer, a love letter from the deep, generous soul of the sport.

This is no more than empty nostalgia. Eden Gardens is Test cricket. It’s Shoaib Akhtar bowling to Rahul Dravid, a Robelinda YouTube channel of a cricket ground. Watching a game here, even at this World Cup, feels like the analogue vision of cricket as a mass spectator sport, as opposed to the current digital model.

No doubt this is also a very English view. The ground is even named in honour of Lord Auckland, governor‑general of mid‑Victorian India – family name: Eden – and overseer of some fairly heinous events in his time. To overromanticise this place is perhaps also to fawn over a whisper of some white-flannelled Anglicised past.

It is usually wrong, and always futile, to prefer the past to the present. India will take this sport where it chooses, and rightly so given the energy and heat for the game. Those glitzier megadromes, the sense at times of being an Indian crowd rather than a cricket crowd: this is their energy, their event, their future. But the past can also be useful, too. English cricket is going to have to think about both of these things as it resumes the familiar process of trying to define itself in the current century.

The game can be dispensed with pretty quickly. England won the toss and reduced Pakistan’s semi-final hopes to a minute mathematical exercise by batting first. There were loud cheers as the Pakistan flag was unfurled on the outfield, in a city where a more liberal governance has coincided with India’s neighbours being deemed fit to play.

Jonny Bairstow swatted a mid-throttle 50 at the top of the innings. Ben Stokes batted beautifully again and even produced a moment of Headingley reprise, a wonderful tumbling reverse‑pirouette sweep into the cages. David Willey belted some farewell blows.

England’s batting was a solid team effort, which is progress in itself. Pakistan never looked like chasing down 337. The best batting was some angry hitting from Haris Rauf at the death.

As for the reckoning, it isn’t hard. England will need to keep a sense of continuity, a golden thread to the T20 World Cup next year. But the performance here also justifies a swinging of the axe; even if Matthew Mott, overseer of the complete drain of all competitive energy from a previously champion team, has, for reasons that are not immediately clear, been assured of his job.

Stokes and Dawid Malan have performed to the required level. Joe Root and Jos Buttler can clearly come again. Harry Brook deserves investment as opposed to the current ham-fisted undermining. The rest is up for grabs. Out should go: Bairstow (fitness, apparent decline), Moeen Ali (fine with it), Willey (retired), Liam Livingstone (Michael Yardy with biceps) and Sam Curran, who just isn’t heading in the right direction.

A more cautious revolution seems likely. For now, England have reached an end point in this strangely lifeless tournament defence, with Kolkata the loveliest of settings to wave goodbye to all that.

Source: The Guardian