London, United Kingdom | AFP | Eoin Morgan’s England face New Zealand at Lord’s on Sunday desperate to win the World Cup for the first time after four years of hard graft.
When England exited the 2015 tournament after an embarrassing defeat by Bangladesh, few tipped them as potential champions four years later.
As captain Morgan put it: “If you had offered us the position to play in a final the day after we were knocked out of the 2015 World Cup, I would have laughed at you.”
One person not laughing was Andrew Strauss, the former England director of cricket.
Drafted into the newly created role, Strauss set about an overhaul that saw the former England captain appoint Australia’s Trevor Bayliss as coach, and place greater emphasis on white-ball cricket.
The value of that work showed when England, now top of the one-day international rankings, thrashed reigning champions Australia by eight wickets in the semi-final at Edgbaston with the kind of performance that justified their billing as pre-tournament favourites.
Pacemen Jofra Archer and Chris Woakes destroyed the top order, leg-spinner Adil Rashid chipped in and the dynamic duo of Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow launched the run chase with another blistering century partnership.
Australian World Cup-winning captain Steve Waugh said England could go down as one of the greatest teams in one-day international history if they win on Sunday.
– “Fearless” cricket –
But the challenge for the host nation, as they seek a first title in the 44-year history of the World Cup, is to embrace Sunday’s occasion at Lord’s without it inhibiting their “fearless” brand of cricket.
“It’s the culmination of four years of hard work and dedication, a lot of planning and it presents a huge opportunity to go on and try and win a World Cup,” said Morgan.
Back-to-back group-stage defeats by Sri Lanka and Australia effectively saw England playing knockout cricket before the semi-finals but they got their campaign back on track with impressive victories against India and New Zealand.
“I think it has helped us because it’s lent itself to actually being more positive and aggressive and a bit smarter about how we play. It’s sort of been the last-chance saloon,” explained Morgan.
New Zealand, who have also never won the World Cup, helped shock England into a change of approach by humiliating them in Wellington four years ago and cannot be underestimated after seeing off Virat Kohli’s India in the semi-finals.
The 2015 losing finalists boast a well-balanced attack led by left-arm quick Trent Boult but their batting has been hugely reliant on captain Kane Williamson, who has scored 548 runs in the tournament at an outstanding average of 91.33, and Ross Taylor.
Williamson said his side were happy to embrace their underdog status, acknowledging that England deserved to be favourites.
“But whatever dog we are, it’s just important that we focus on the cricket that we want to play,” he said. “And we have seen over the years that anybody can beat anybody — regardless of breed of dog.”
While some members of the home side were not even born when England made the last of three losing appearances in a World Cup final in 1992, the Black Caps have the experience of their heavy defeat by co-hosts Australia in the climax of the 2015 edition in Melbourne to call on.
But there is a sense that England will never have a better chance.
“I haven’t allowed myself to think about lifting the trophy,” said Morgan.
“Cricket and sport in particular is very fickle. If you ever get ahead, it always seems to bite you in the backside. For us to win it, I think around the country it would be awesome, great for the game.”