England teams are embracing fun so let’s not overburden them with hype
England needed one run to beat New Zealand. A single run, from 18 balls. That’s the T20 equivalent of reaching the last 100m a lap ahead of your rival. The kind of lead where you could roly-poly your way down the home straight, stop just before the line for a sip of tea and still win.
All the man on strike had to do was nudge the ball along the ground, anywhere in the large, open outfield of the Feroz Shah Kotla stadium, and trot a luxurious single. That’s what most batsmen would do. It’s what most players of the past would do. However, Jos Buttler stepped back, spread his legs, and hoisted the ball over the mid-on boundary. It was a show of finesse, of power and of devil-may-care in one.
On Sunday England’s men are in the World Twenty20 final and, for one brief moment, there is very little wrong with being an England sporting fan. The men’s rugby union team are and the footballers recently came from 2-0 down the . At a time like this, you’ve got to be a pathological grump – we are talking Home and Away’s Alf Stewart gene‑spliced with Victor Meldrew – to let a by a much-changed side nix your overall enthusiasm. Who knows what emergency procedures radio phone-in producers have in place for a time like this? Perhaps they hold a minute’s silence.
The England rugby team have probably not had this much positive press since the 2003 World Cup. Back then, Sven‑Goran Eriksson’s footballers had begun a run of reaching major tournament quarter-finals. Michael Vaughan, meanwhile, was steadily growing a cricket team who would ultimately win back the Ashes for England for the first time in more than a decade. It was, perhaps, the last time that all three of England’s chief sports teams enjoyed a simultaneously upbeat outlook.
This feels different because it isn’t just that England are experiencing a measure of all-round success – it is how they’re doing it. In the past fortnight we’ve goggled at Harry Kane’s Cruyff turn. We’ve giggled at the sight of Danny Care swallow-diving a crucial try against France. We’ve gasped as Jason Roy and Alex Hales took 44 off the first two overs against South Africa. We haven’t known an entertainment revolution like this one since the invention of HBO.
England fans of every stripe are used to sitting down in front of the telly full of expectation – then getting up again, a couple of hours later, with the sense that they would have spent the time more pleasurably clawing hair out of a bathroom plughole. Our native sporting style mirrors our climate (wet and grey, lifted by the occasional bright spot); and generations of Saturday practice on sticky, muddy, rain-soaked fields seem to reveal themselves in our patterns of play.
Where warmer countries sprinkle their turf with fleet-footed sprites, we’ve specialised in the creation of athletes like golems – clay-footed totems who wrestle valiantly but ungracefully for the cause, and specialise in stodgy, suety endeavour. The desperate wish for our teams to be less dour, less defensive, has hung on our lips for years, so simple yet apparently unachievable: one of those conversations you are still having decades into a marriage, like how to stack the dishwasher in such a way that the glasses actually get clean.
And now here we are, three teams with verve, attack – dare we say pizzazz? What’s done it? An infusion of new blood certainly has something to do with it: players such as Jamie Vardy, Maro Itoje, David Willey. Two of the teams have new Australian coaches, under whom they have flourished as quickly as a cannabis plant under a 500-watt hydroponic lamp. But it is more interesting that all three of them have come out of disastrous World Cup campaigns.
It is as if those catastrophes – in each case, a month of hype followed by the kind of group-stage exit that ought to come with a swanee-whistle soundtrack – have taken the pressure off. A new generation of sportsmen are playing with abandon – and management are letting them. There’s no better example than Roy, whose ballsy big-hitting has drawn criticism for its high-risk strategy. It’s true he has a habit of getting out early. After , the only sensible response is: who cares?
If this is what England players can achieve when they are released from the fear of failure, let’s hope that their newfound style doesn’t bring with it any heightened expectations of its own. I hereby pledge to do my best by not getting too excited about them in this column. England? They’re OK, I suppose.