Match Analysis

After 29 days of doom and gloom, England taste sweet victory

"We're not playing for what we wanted to be playing for, but a really vital match for us in the grand scheme of things," the captain Jos Buttler said

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Paul van Meekeren charged down the pitch, swung, and missed. Jos Buttler gathered Moeen Ali's flat offbreak, moved his hands past the stumps as if to toy with van Meekeren, then dragged them back to knock the bails off. As England's players gathered in the middle there were high-fives, pats on backs, and even a few smiles.
So this was how it felt. 29 days after their first win at this World Cup, a breeze past Bangladesh in Dharamsala, England finally had their second. In those 29 days, they stayed in seven different hotels across seven different cities, travelled nearly 5,500km spanning six different flights, lost five consecutive games and were bowled out in all five.
In most sports, World Cups have mercy on losing teams, sending them home after two or three defeats. Not cricket. England's beleaguered players have been stuck halfway across the world for the last two weeks with their semi-final prospects long gone, waiting aimlessly for someone, anyone to strike the killer blow.
Australia delivered it, but even that wasn't enough. The mid-tournament revelation that a Champions Trophy spot was on the line left England with no choice but to treat a low-key fixture against the Netherlands, a side they took for a world-record total of 498 last year but one with more points than them in their first seven games, as a must-win.
And so, to Pune - or more accurately, a vast, empty stadium an hour outside Pune, nestled somewhere near the Mumbai-Pune expressway on the edge of sprawling suburbia and overlooked by an incomplete housing project. The sparse crowd, reported at 9,217 by the ICC, rattled around in this 42,700-seater concrete bowl.
England took 39 runs from the first four overs and overcame the loss of Jonny Bairstow for 15. Dawid Malan brought up a 36-ball half-century, and Joe Root finally made it out of the first Powerplay. But then came a familiar stumble: Root was nutmegged by Logan van Beek, losing his middle stump reverse-scooping, and panic set in.
Malan was run out after being sent back by Ben Stokes, looking for a single that was never there, Harry Brook - finally recalled for Liam Livingstone - hit two sumptuous boundaries then hooked Bas de Leede to deep square leg, and Buttler chipped tamely to mid-off, by this stage utterly bereft of his usual self-assurance.
The stadium DJ was impervious to the banks of empty seats, blaring out Canadian rap between overs. Moeen Ali half-heartedly lofted Aryan Dutt straight down de Leede's throat at long-off for 4 off 15 balls. In the stands, one older England fan held up a sign which self-effacingly declared: "We beat Bangladesh".
Chris Woakes nudged a single off Dutt, then resolutely blocked the final ball of his over. "Alright Pune, let's raise the energy!" implored the DJ. "Hands up, hands up, dance, dance, dance, let's go!" Nobody danced. England's double world champions scrapped to keep their legacy intact.
It was left to Stokes to bail them out. He was given a life on 41, when Dutt put down a tough chance at fine leg off van Beek, then started to grind through the gears. He reached a 58-ball half-century, his second in a row, when he launched de Leede over midwicket, then marmalised Dutt after surviving an inconclusive review for lbw.
Stokes' second fifty took only 20 balls as he brought up a century by reverse-slapping van Meekeren for four. It was his first in World Cups, a fact which served only to underline that some players' influence will never be measured by milestones, in light of his 2019 heroics.
But this was a strange sight: here was England's man for the big moments, 25km outside Pune, in a battle for Champions Trophy qualification. Stokes will surely not play in that tournament, but his innings at least dragged them to the lofty heights of seventh in the World Cup group stage heading into the final round of fixtures.
This, then, was the reason that Stokes had stayed in India, rather than heading home and moving his knee operation forwards by a week. "That's not his style at all," Buttler said. "He's here to play in the World Cup and he wants to be here." The pair did not even discuss the possibility of Stokes leaving early.
As England wrapped up a 160-run win with another solid bowling performance - their third in a row, after bowling India and Australia out - Buttler's overriding emotion was relief. "It's not enjoyable losing," he said. "It's been a frustrating time… Any game I play, I'm competitive, I want to win - whether it's a game of cards or a game of cricket."
Finally, the losing streak was broken. "It's nice to end that sequence and we go to Kolkata," Buttler said. "We're not playing for what we wanted to be playing for, but a really vital match for us in the grand scheme of things. It's great to be heading there with something on the line."
England now fly east to play Pakistan on Saturday, where they can at least expect a much grander spectacle at Eden Gardens against a team vying for a semi-final berth - and against India, no less. Then at last, after one final sequence of travel-train-play, they will be able to consign this dismal title defence to history.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98