England started their T20 World Cup campaign with the victory they needed but not with the kind of all-round performance that might strike terror into their rivals. There was wonderful, high-pace bowling – Mark Wood’s four overs here were the fastest in the history of the tournament – but their scoring was much slower, and they eventually trudged to their total of 113 with 11 balls and five wickets remaining.
Sam Curran became the first Englishman to take a five-for in a T20 international as he shredded Afghanistan’s lower order towards the end of their innings, taking four wickets for no runs in six balls across two overs to end with the fantasy figures of five wickets for 10 runs. Far from finding the accelerator in their final few overs the Afghans instead located the self-destruct button, slumping from 106 for 5 with three overs left to 112 all out with two balls unused.
The question then was whether England’s response would be full-bore or just bore, and while they never appeared in any real danger of defeat they erred towards option two. Neither opener managed more than a run a ball, Dawid Malan took 30 balls over his 18, and when Liam Livingstone nudged the ball down the leg side for four in the 14th over it was, remarkably, their first boundary since the fifth.
One noticeable trend at this stage of the World Cup is that the massive bias towards chasing that for many tarnished last year’s competition has reversed, and so far the team batting first has won eight of 14 games. But batting second remains England’s preference and was Jos Buttler’s choice at the toss, and the low target allowed them to rein in their more extreme attacking instincts. There must have been a temptation to attack their target with maximum vigour and attempt to give their net run rate an early boost, but instead they concluded the best option was not so much to be hell for leather as mild discomfort for polyester.
At the end of the powerplay they stood at 44 for one, just nine more than Afghanistan had at the same stage. By the end of the ninth over Buttler had fallen for 18, Alex Hales had been dropped twice and caught once, and England were 52-2. There will not be many games in this competition when that kind of score is a waypoint for anything but disaster.
But on this occasion their bowling had been good enough to allow it. On a wicket greener than a mouldy lettuce, and with Chris Woakes recovered from the minor thigh-based niggle that appeared likely to rule him out of the game 24 hours earlier, England took the ball and grasped the initiative. What followed was an outstanding display of accuracy and discipline from the bowlers, and of catching in the field, to make sure the Afghanistan innings never gained any momentum. There was no early rush of wickets – that came later – but with the run-scoring as pedestrian as the bowling was at times electric England quickly took control.
They continued the recent experiment of opening the bowling with a single Ben Stokes over, but from there Woakes and Wood ripped through the powerplay. Wood’s speed was breathtaking and instantly effective, as having failed to take a single wicket at last year’s World Cup this time he got one with his very first delivery, which whipped past Rahmanullah Gurbaz, flicked the inside edge and flew into Buttler’s gloves.
England celebrated as the batter stood bemused, perhaps having mistimed a blink and missed it all – he had to ask his fellow opener, Hazrat Zazai, what on earth had happened before he eventually trudged from the field. Wood’s fastest delivery in that opening over was clocked at 96mph, and that set the tone for his evening. He has worked hard on his variations, and has slower balls in his armoury, but they went unused across four overs in which his slowest delivery clocked 88mph.
Meanwhile England’s catching was magnificent, and they compiled a showreel of outstanding efforts. Livingstone’s was the first and probably the best, racing round to his right before diving forwards to dismiss Zazai. Moeen Ali collected a high ball dropping over his shoulder as casually as if he was itching his chin or clearing some wax from his ear, and if Adil Rashid did not take a similar approach to a superficially similar effort it was only because of the amount of distance he had to cover to get there. Finally Buttler supermanned to his left to collect the ball after Mohammad Nabi gloved one down the leg side.
There was plenty here to praise, and also plenty to improve on.