The lead-up to the World Cup, if it means anything at all, has gone spotlessly for England. The final ODI at Leeds was the most comfortable win in a series that has, one washout excepted, consisted only of victories against a Pakistan side which will rue slow starts with both bat and ball in the final fixture as they fell to a 54-run defeat.
While the batting for England has been relentlessly brilliant over the series, and indeed since 2015, it was Chris Woakes‘ performance that stood out at Headingley. Three wickets in his first two overs reduced Pakistan to 6 for 3 and in a chase of 352, that was the game just about done. For good measure, he would return to clean up the tail, too, ending with impressive figures of 5 for 54.
Pakistan had brief hope while Sarfaraz Ahmedand Babar Azam put on a massive fourth-wicket stand, contributing 146 while together, but found all hopes dashed by an incredible spell of fielding that yielded three wickets in six overs. Adil Rashid and Jos Buttler were at the centre of it all, Rashid completing a remarkable no-look run-out on the turn to find Babar well short of his ground. He would follow that with an outstanding left-handed catch off his own bowling, and Buttler would add to Pakistan’s misery with the best of the lot.
Sarfaraz cut the ball away to third man – or so he thought – and stepped out of his crease before the ball had quite passed Buttler. The wicketkeeper stuck a leg out, and saw the ball hit his boot and roll back to him. Quick as a flash, he had dislodged the bails, and Pakistan were 193 for 6, still 148 runs adrift.
Until then, the Pakistan captain’s performance only raised further questions about his reticence to bat in the top five, given how effective he has been higher up the order and his struggles lower down. One of the best in the business at rotating the strike, he came together with Babar to regroup expertly and when the ante needed upping, he took the attack to the spinners, bludgeoning Adil Rashid for two fours and a six off consecutive deliveries as he raced towards what would have been a well-deserved hundred.
But the most decisive blows had already been struck in the first fifteen minutes. If you’ve seen Fakhar Zaman get out this way once, you’ve seen them all. Woakes, who found early swing, bowled just outside the off stump, forcing Fakhar to play towards extra cover. The left-hander’s edge went to Joe Root at second slip, almost a carbon copy of his wicket in the first game of the series. That was followed by two lbws where England used every bit of the wood on the wickets, the umpire’s call going their way both times as Woakes toyed with Abid Ali, playing his first game this series, and Mohammad Hafeez, curiously promoted up the order in defiance of recent trends and statistical form.
It had been the same for Pakistan in the first innings, after Eoin Morgan had won the toss and decided to set the target for a change. The first two balls from Hasan Ali were wide of the off stump and dispatched for four and from ball one, Pakistan almost appeared disinterested. Inaccuracy was rife and more than once when the ball went down the leg side, Sarfaraz failed to collect effectively, inflating the extras and gifting England needless runs. It allowed the batsmen to plunder 95 from the first 10 even though both openers failed to convert starts, and the platform had been set for Morgan and Root to do the sort of damage they would go on to inflict in the following 20 overs.
For the best part of 35 overs, England seemed destined for 400, and, depending on how obnoxiously brilliant Buttler chose to be, potentially well in excess of that mark. Then Imad Wasim, who had started off indifferently, struck twice in three balls to remove Butler and Moeen Ali, and with Root and Morgan having departed not long before, England found themselves down to Ben Stokes and the lower order for the second time in as many games.
There wasn’t a century in the whole innings, something England may point to for their inability to post the type of score they had looked on course for throughout the innings. James Vince began with the picturesque elegance that has become as much a blessing as a curse for him, what with his now infamous struggles to kick on. He flattered to deceive once more, top-edging Shaheen Afridi once he reached 33, but with Pakistan never really hitting their straps in the first Powerplay, England were well on their way to a big score.
With fellow opener Jonny Bairstow also failing to covert, Root and Morgan accumulated the meat of the England total with a classy 117-run partnership across the next 18 overs. It combined modern belligerence with almost risk-free classical fluidity, not letting three or four quiet overs panic or rush them, capitalising on almost every loose delivery and many tight ones. After seven overs without a boundary following Bairstow’s departure, England found at least one in every one of the following eight. Morgan was the chief aggressor during this period, smashing Fakhar, Shoaib Malik and Imad all out of the attack as Sarfaraz used seven bowlers across the fifty overs.
At the time, it seemed churlish of Root to look so disconsolate when he found the deep fielder at 84, England’s Test captain smashing his bat and leaving in something of a huff. In hindsight, though, it was that moment when things went downhill for the hosts. Buttler took his time settling in, and with Imad having found a tighter line and the ability to keep to it consistently, the runs began to dry up. It was perhaps what hurried Buttler as he attempted to put away a rare long-hop from the left-arm spinner straight into backward point’s hands, while Moeen was trapped in front off his second delivery. For the first time, the insouciance with which England normally bat had to be reined in as surviving the fifty overs became a priority.
Perhaps the most delightful spell of the series was a throwback 47-run partnership between 18-year old Shaheen Afridi and 19-year old Mohammad Hasnain. Hasnain – who had never scored a professional run before – tormented an agitated David Willey, striking four fours and a six during a breezy innings. It brought temporary smiles on the faces of Mickey Arthur and several Pakistan fans, but they will know there remains plenty of work to be done if they are to seriously challenge teams of England’s ilk at the World Cup. England’s time, without tempting fate, may well be here.