By Chris Stocks
ENGLAND’S victory at Sophia Gardens that secured a semi-final place was ultimately comfortable. However, that’s only because the bowlers produced perhaps their finest collective performance since the last World Cup.
The progress Eoin Morgan’s side have made in the two years since then has been based on a powerful batting line-up that is capable of blowing away any attack and England are favourites to beat Pakistan in the semis according to the latest 888sport betting odds.
Yet on a windy day in South Wales, it was England’s bowlers, who have for so long been the team’s weak link, that came to the fore.
There’s no doubt the total of 310 the hosts made after being put into bat was below par. Yes, New Zealand were eventually defeated by 87 runs.
But as Morgan admitted: “We weren’t that pleased at halfway, we were maybe 20 or 30 short of par. I thought we would have got more. We fell away towards the end, which is disappointing.”
Alex Hales, with his second successive 50-plus score, Joe Root, following up his unbeaten century from the opening match of the tournament against Bangladesh with 64, and Ben Stokes, sublime before falling on 48 trying to upper-cut his way to a half-century, all failed to go on after getting starts.
However, Jos Buttler, whose unbeaten 61 from 48 balls included an audacious scoop for six that landed in a camera gantry at the River Taff end, helped get the total past 300.
It was the bowlers, though, who ensured a victory that secured a semi-final back in Cardiff on Wednesday.
Jake Ball kicked things off by uprooting Luke Ronchi’s middle stump with the fourth delivery of the innings.
Ball was fortunate to keep his place in the team after his poor performance at The Oval against Bangladesh, when he shipped 82 runs from his 10 overs.
Here, though, he was excellent, conceding just 31 from eight and also picking up another crucial wicket in Ross Taylor to get England back into this game.
The contest really turned shortly before that when Mark Wood split a 95-run third-wicket stand between Taylor and Kane Williamson by dismissing the New Zealand captain with a ball that reared up off the two-paced pitch and landed in Buttler’s gloves.
Adil Rashid, dropped for the opening match, also chipped in with two wickets on his return to the side in conditions that didn’t help the leg-spinner at all.
Then there’s Liam Plunkett, who now has eight wickets in this tournament after he mopped up the New Zealand tail to return figures of 4-55.
No England bowler’s economy rate was above six runs an over – this was a real team effort to dismiss dangerous opponents for 223.
“I thought they did an outstanding job,” Morgan said of his bowling attack. “They were truly the highlight of the day. Our batting performance was pretty average. So I thought the bowlers as a collective unit were brilliant, really.”
Rashid admitted being dropped for that opening match may have bothered him a few years ago. But the Yorkshireman is now seemingly made of tougher stuff mentally and is looking forward to playing a full part in the remainder of the tournament.
“When I was younger, ten years ago, maybe I would have been disappointed at being left out,” he said. “But I think now, because of the way the team is, we back each other whether we play or not, it’s all together – 14 or 15 in the squad. “It’s disappointing not to play but I was still backing the team and if given the chance, I try my best. It wasn’t hard to get over it. I wasn’t really upset as we’ve got a strong squad and at some point, some players will be left out. It’s about preparing to play and making sure you’re ready if you get the nod.
“I feel in a good place and today felt good. Hopefully I can carry that on.”
As for England, a place in the last four is by no means the limit of their ambitions in this Champions Trophy.
“It feels good to be in the semis but we are not satisfied,” said Morgan. “We want to fulfil our potential. We have a lot of work to do.””