Never mind the controllables and one-percenters that usually dominate post-match platitudes. Six weeks ago, after England had cruised back into the lead of their topsy-turvy seven-match series in Pakistan, Saqlain Mushtaq was roundly lampooned for suggesting that the “laws of nature” were ruling the fortunes of his team.
And yet, even amid the brickbats, Pakistan’s head coach could be forgiven for feeling a little bewildered by the fluctuations he was being expected to oversee. One day prior to collapsing to 28 for 4 in pursuit of an outlandish 212, he had witnessed Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan romp to a 200-run target in a single bewitching stand. You cannot teach nor tame such feral genius, let alone legislate against it – on any given night in Karachi, let alone on the most imposing stage of them all.
And so, can there be any better explanation for the ludicrous logic that has brought us to this moment in time? England versus Pakistan, in a World Cup final at the MCG – 30 years and a handful of months since the last staging of this classic encounter, way back at the dawn of the white-ball era in 1992.
Then, as now, Pakistan’s World Cup campaign has been a riot of last-ditchism, with as many incongruous plot twists as a tired old movie franchise – one that’s battling to stay relevant in a fast-evolving world, but one that also knows its audience, and knows that nothing puts bums on seats more readily than a warm and familiar nostalgic bath.
Only Pakistan could have been so far out of the running that, on this occasion, even Netherlands doing a stunning number on South Africa wasn’t enough in itself to get them back on an even keel. Only Pakistan could have lost to their arch-rivals India in such heart-stopping, gut-wrenching circumstances at the MCG, only to find themselves back at the same venue three weeks later with all sins forgiven. If they can now take that final step, we will know that it was written. And who would ever dare to quibble with nature again?
Well, England might, for starters. In their more under-stated fashion, Jos Buttler’s men have been on no less a journey at this World Cup – not so much one of self-discovery, as they’ve been doing that for fun since their own nadir at the 2015 World Cup, but of re-affirmation.
At the mid-point of the group stages, they were the most timorous team in the competition, stacking up the dot-balls and failing to find the boundary – a situation best exemplified by their careless rain-rules loss to Ireland, when a surfeit of good manners with the weather closing in cost them the chance to get ahead of the DLS par score.
Even now, going into the final, no-one in England’s middle-order has struck more than one six in the competition – but by way of mitigation, Buttler and Alex Hales racked up ten between them in their ten-wicket saunter against India in Adelaide. That display was at reassuring odds with the anxious grind to victory that Ben Stokes had marshalled in their must-win group game against Sri Lanka. Much like the liberation that occurred against Australia in the 2019 World Cup semi-final, perhaps it was a case of sheer relief at achieving the bare minimum of the team’s expectations.
After all, for England’s white-ball agenda-setters, this Melbourne match is a date with destiny of a subtly different magnitude. At some point in the next 48 hours, weather permitting, we shall know if England have managed to become the first men’s team in history to hold both the 50-over and 20-over World Cups simultaneously, and by dint of that achievement, whether they have conferred on themselves a measure of greatness that a select few teams in history can claim to have achieved.
You can quibble with how such intangibles are measured, but you cannot deny the extent to which this generation of England players has dictated the pace of white-ball cricket since 2015. The team has reached at least the semi-finals in all four global competitions since that fateful winter, and though the personnel has evolved to a degree – including this year’s retirement of Eoin Morgan – six members of the side that played in the 2016 World T20 final in Kolkata are likely to front up in Melbourne on Sunday (seven if both Chris Jordan and David Willey get the call).
And for all the inevitable chatter about 1992 in the coming hours and days, perhaps for England, that 2016 experience is the most significant ghost in the machine. Only Stokes knows quite how fundamental that failure was to his never-say-die endeavours in the 2019 final, but Morgan himself has since spoken about how he wished he had slowed the pace down in Kolkata and given his team more room to breathe – a point that he visibly carried into those fraught closing moments of Jofra Archer’s Super Over three years later.
The point is, England have been here before, and have the advantage of having lived every imaginable emotion on their previous visits to the big time – not least Buttler, whose run-out of Martin Guptill at Lord’s unleashed the very best of them on that unforgettable July day.
The danger for England is that to fail again at the final hurdle – so soon after falling short in the UAE last year – would be a bitter blow to that legacy, seven years of hegemony, and just the one (albeit significant) trophy to show for it.
And yet it was telling, in the moments after the India win, that when Buttler and Morgan were reunited in front of Sky Sports’ cameras, the moment amounted to an on-screen passing of the baton.
“There’s no advice I can give to this man,” Morgan said. “I thought he captained his best-ever game today… so my messaging to anyone who’s asking is ‘they are just ready’.”
Pakistan, by contrast, don’t really do ‘ready’. But they might just be bang up for it. Because that, as they have endlessly and chaotically demonstrated, is sometimes all they’ve needed to prove it was in the stars all along.
Pakistan WWWWL (last five completed T20Is, most recent first) England WWWLW
In the spotlight
If England emerge victorious, then Hales’ narrative arc is sure to be the one doing the rounds, for obvious and well-documented reasons. And yet, to judge by the plotlines of England’s last two global finals, their death bowling is likely to be the make-or-break factor. They trusted in vibes for the 2016 final in Kolkata, and poor Stokes imploded, while in 2019, they turned to proven excellence and Archer prevailed in the Super Over. This time, however, with Archer hors de combat, Sam Curran has emerged as the man for the big occasion. His left-arm line is a challenge in itself, but so too is his mental resilience, and command of his options. Going into the semi-final, Curran had bowled 40 balls between the 17th and 20th overs in this World Cup, and conceded only 34 runs while picking off seven wickets. And while he took some tap from a rampant Hardik Pandya in Adelaide, the wider acreage of the MCG is likely to suit his methods better.
When quizzed about facing Pakistan in the final, Buttler pointed out that the two teams weren’t exactly strangers after the winter just gone. And though that may be true as a whole, one man in Pakistan’s line-up could come as something of an unknown quantity. Mohammad Haris was flitting around the fringes of their set-up in the bilateral series just gone – he even coyly introduced himself to Buttler before the first T20I in Karachi in a heartwarming video that did the rounds on Twitter. But his solitary outing in the sixth match yielded just 7 from 8 balls, which was a far cry from his ballistic displays since getting his chance in Australia. In this tournament, his 89 runs at No. 3 have come at a rowdy strike rate of 161.81, including 28 from 11 against South Africa despite being clonked on the grille by Wayne Parnell second ball. He’s carried on in the vein that made him a breakout star of this year’s PSL, and provided that edge of intent that had been so lacking in Pakistan’s batting whenever their mainstays, Babar and Rizwan, failed.
No reason for Pakistan to change a winning formula after their cruise to victory over New Zealand. After easing his way back to match fitness with one wicket in three outings against India, Netherlands and Zimbabwe, Shaheen Shah Afridi has led the line with a trio of formidable displays against South Africa, Bangladesh and New Zealand – 9 for 60 in 11 overs all told, including three powerplay scalps. And given that Pakistan’s seam attack was already among the most menacing on show, it’s an all-immersive threat that gives extra license to Babar and Rizwan to do what they do best with the bat.
Pakistan (possible): 1 Babar Azam (capt), 2 Mohammad Rizwan, 3 Mohammad Haris, 4 Shan Masood, 5 Iftikhar Ahmed, 6 Mohammad Nawaz, 7 Shadab Khan, 8 Mohammad Wasim, 9 Naseem Shah, 10 Haris Rauf, 11 Shaheen Shah Afridi.
After fielding an unchanged XI all through the tournament, England were forced into two changes against India after injuries to Mark Wood and Dawid Malan in the Sri Lanka match. England’s head coach, Matthew Mott, promised to keep an “open mind” about their availability, he also warned that playing either man for such a high-stakes contest would be a “gamble”. Captain Buttler said both were “improving” and they would give them “every chance”. Both men trained on Saturday and looked good. They both did some running. Wood bowled in the nets including a handful of deliveries at full pace while Malan faced throwdowns. But such is England’s depth, there’s no need to roll the dice – even to accommodate their highest-ranked T20I batter and most express-paced bowler. Instead, Phil Salt – unrequired as a batter in that ten-wicket romp – is set to keep his berth in the middle order. The only potential change might be a tactical one, with Morgan, England’s former captain, suggesting that Melbourne’s vast square boundaries might favour the swing of David Willey over the yorkers of Chris Jordan, whose three wickets against India were nevertheless invaluable in his only outing of the campaign.
England (possible): 1 Jos Buttler (capt & wk), 2 Alex Hales, 3 Dawid Malan / Phil Salt, 4 Ben Stokes 5 Harry Brook, 6 Liam Livingstone, 7 Moeen Ali, 8 Sam Curran, 9 Chris Woakes, 10 Mark Wood / Chris Jordan / David Willey, 11 Adil Rashid.
Pitch and conditions
The pitch is likely to be another MCG 2.0 offering based on how it looked while uncovered 24 hours out – with Victoria’s damp early-season conditions enhancing the pace and bounce on offer to the seamers, in a significant improvement on the moribund drop-in offerings of years gone by. As Pakistan and India proved in their epic group-stage tussle, wickets in the powerplay are to be expected, and a target of 160-odd is likely to be challenging – even Ireland’s 157 proved sufficient to topple a ponderous England in their rain-affected clash at the venue. This strip does appear to have a little less grass, but there is still more coverage than what is normally seen in January in the BBL. The trouble is… that forecast is not encouraging. A reserve day on Monday has been factored in, with a start time of 5pm (4am GMT) to allow as much time as possible for a result. But the omens are not entirely promising.
Stats and trivia
Pakistan and England have met twice before in the T20 World Cup, at The Oval in 2009 and in Bridgetown in 2010. England emerged victorious on both occasions – and on the latter occasion, they even went on to claim the title at the same venue.
And yet, true to Pakistan’s reputation for taking the scenic route to glory, they themselves bounced back in 2009 to defeat Sri Lanka in the final at Lord’s.
Ben Stokes needs 44 more runs to pass 3,000 in all T20 fixtures. Despite a vital 42 not out in his most recent innings against Sri Lanka, he is still awaiting his first half-century in the format.
Shadab Khan needs three wickets to reach 100 in T20Is, and 44 runs to complete the 100/500 double. He will be playing in his 84th T20I.
An England victory would give their coach, Matthew Mott, his second World Cup title of the year, after he helped guide Australia’s women to the 50-over crown in New Zealand in April.
“We’ve played against them a lot recently. But of course, in very different conditions. I think that’s probably the main factor. Even though we’ve played each other in quite a few games, here at Melbourne is going to be a different game to the series obviously in Pakistan. We know we’re up against an excellent team. That’s exactly what you expect in a World Cup final.” England captain Jos Buttler expects a different challenge against Pakistan in Melbourne to the recent seven-match series in Pakistan.
“The England side is one of the best in the world. The series we played against them was very competitive. Hales and Buttler were outstanding yesterday, but we have one of the best pace attacks in cricket.” Babar Azam, Pakistan’s captain, aims to fight fire with fire with his attack against England’s in-form openers.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket