Different Level.

Let’s start with a minute’s applause, for an Australian side we freely acknowledge to be a worldie – even those of still somewhat trapped by that feeble, generational tribalism-thing, that puts an anchor on pro-Aus warblature. They are different level; they’ve proved it; it’s a triumph for all of them. Their seemingly impregnable mentality is a powerful, impressive, undeniable bloc, that even us Poms have to defer to and respect.

So where’s it come from? From Mott’s shrewd leadership – and Lanning’s. Via deep, committed investment, both financial and in terms of planning, to make the execution possible. From a spectacular group of talented and resilient players. From things strategised, then ‘allowed to happen’, or nurtured, rather than directed or coached, entirely – because, maybe, they can’t be coached. Plenty of this is supra-sport, beyond measurement, ownership or even explanation. How fabulous is that?

Australia are all of those juggernaut-tastic things the media and the fans are calling them. It’s great that a truly ground-breaking squad has demonstrated their brilliance so emphatically… and gone and won the bloody thing. This is what Sporting Justice ought to look like: the best winning, fair and square (and ideally with some style). All. Boxes. Ticked.

But where does this leave England? In credit, firstly, in the sense that they have fought back from some degree of humiliation (never mind disappointment) in the early rounds of this tournament. They were distressingly poor, particularly in the field, for a nerve-jangling and near-‘fatal’ period. A way back (and forward, obvs) was found.

Interesting to note Ecclestone’s lurv-note to her skipper, in this regard. Sophie notably keen to big up ‘Trevor’ for guiding/chivvying/leading the group back into contention. For England to win a series of sudden-death matches and then stay ahead of the Australian run-rate for thirty-odd overs, chasing a ridicu-total in the World Cup Final is no mean feat. To smash South Africa in the semi is no mean feat. Ecclestone publicly lumped a lot of the credit for the honourable resurgence at her captain’s feet.

There are rumours around the obvious potential retirees – Brunt and Shrubsole. The latter was tearful both before and after the game: no wonder. Shrubsole had a goodish semi and final but her conditioning and the feeling that more teams will find her out more easily as time and skill-levels fly on and up, work against her keenly now. Yes she is still taking wickets but a wee slackening in pace is inevitable. That together with raised expectations and the urgent need to enact the succession planning we can only imagine has been at the forefront of the coaching groups’ minds for some time point to an international retirement soon. It’s time.

Brunt is older but a different animal. Fitter and more adversarial than Shrubsole – generally in a good way – the long-time Pack Leader may still have the energy and the skills to compete for a place. (Whether this is either the right thing, or helpful to either party is something those of us the outside would be foolish to judge upon). My daft guess is that both opening bowlers may retire – possibly from all cricket – with Shrubsole moving into a coaching role, maybe within a shortish time-frame. (She just strikes me as a thoughtful one, and someone who might impart valuable stuff with some dexterity. Brunt is allegedly a lovely, ‘soft’, warm human away from the battle but somehow I don’t see her settling back into stuff, away and without direct involvement in that mortal combat).

The World Cup Final, perhaps inevitably, laid bare some of the concerns, for England. What happens when early wickets don’t tumble, for the bowling unit? What happens if Sciver, striding out to bat, can’t find her Superwoman suit? How can Brunt be batting 7? What level *really*, are Dean and Cross working at, ball-in-hand?

We cannot address any of these issues without re-stating the specialness of Australia; without revisiting the clear yellow water between Oz and everybody else. But let’s assume – as England will – that they are the standard to which they aspire. Simply no point in aiming towards Indian or South African ‘ceilings’: how well Ecclestone – to take the extreme and uppermost example – goes against that second tier, is irrelevant to progress. England must address the towering spinner’s relative failure to impact the fixtures against Australia. (Go look at the stats. Interesting).

Watching Ecclestone go for 70-odd in her ten overs (again) was no real surprise – Australia, we know, are *that good* – but Keightley and co (as well as the bowler) must look at the specifics around that, as well as the general impregnability of the Australian line-up. All of us with an opinion to hurl were saying, before the game, that England must find a way to knock over seven or eight Aussie wickets to stand any chance. It didn’t happen. Three toughish chances were dropped and by the time wickets fell, a platform the size of a South Sea island had been built.

It may have been that Lanning, Mooney and Perry didn’t need that incredi-base to free them up – such is their confidence and skill. But having a mighty lump of runs behind you does *change things*. I might have gone in there and fearlessly biffed a few, in those last ten overs. Australia, without me, struck 120 runs off the last 60 balls(!) Strewth. No wonder the record books were exploding.

Final thought on the Australian batting. Perry. This may be sentimental but how wonderful to see her just do enough, in her limited time at the crease, to offer a wee sense of her choiceness, her flow. Unwise words both but she remains a goddess of the game, a natural – as demonstrated by her exhibition in the field, where she gathered and threw splendidly.

To England, and particulars of their game. Wyatt could not maintain her own, superlative form, of the semi and, despite being England’s best fielder, she dropped a sharpish chance, at point. (That, in hindsight seems a little symbolic… and despite the Independence of All Things, it felt a little like that precipitated further drops from Sciver and Beaumont). Opening-up, as always, Beaumont fell earlyish, too, again playing across – something she may need to re-address. Early-doors, England stayed ahead of the run-rate, but a killer partnership never seemed likely: compare and contrast(?)

Knight could not resist: England’s platform was therefore creditable but wobbly. Jones, joining Sciver, found a few shots but fell off again. Dunkley, in at 6, felt like the last significant protagonist… with a zillion runs still to make. When she was bowled, rather unsatisfactorily, behind here legs, Sciver, going mightily once more, looked stranded – or likely to be so.(As she approached her hundred, this tingled, uncomfortably).

Ultimately, Sciver nailed an extraordinary second century against This Australia, in the tournament: defiance, and then some.

Brunt went, Dean offered meaningful but sadly un-sustainable support and Cross and Shrubsole went cheaply. In short justice was done, and by about the right margin. Another Australian Team For the Ages had powered home, with Healy playing the kind of knock that even Poms like me might raise a glass to.

On a spectacular day, the team in blinding yellow had re-invented the possibles again. Thrillingly.

Knight is due.

That same England that we fans were cursing found a higher-astral-plane cruising-mode to render everything a nonsense, earlier. Of course they did. Because a) everything IS a nonsense, b) this was a semi and c) THEY ALWAYS WERE #thebestteamintheworldthatisntAustralia.

Yes. They were. Even when Shrubsole and Brunt looked painfully out of sorts, the coach looked weirdly like a mildly disinterested knitting champion and Wyatt, Jones and everybody but Sciver and Dunkley looked like toast-in-the-waiting. In short, even when England were ’embarrassing’, those of us who have been paying attention (over days/weeks/years) knew that they had ‘performances in them’. That they really were better than India/WIndies/South Africa – that they were, in fact, the only meaningful challengers to the Aussie juggernaut.

Does this mean I/we take back our vitriol, from the last month? (Even the frankly unkind stuff about Shrubsole’s condition?) No. ‘Fraid not. Despite the thrilling excellence of Anya’s opening burst – despite, even, the fine, diving grab for the Wolvaardt wicket, Shrubsole is not absolved. She like every other International Professional Athlete should be ticking the I.P.A box in terms of fitness and agility. Likewise Jones and Wyatt (etc, etc) should be ticking the Avoid The Ludicrous Lazy Gift box, when wielding the willow of Ingerland. This stuff matters: there are responsibilities in play, yes?

But ‘end of’. Look at the scoreboard; look at the table; look at the history books. They already say ‘Holders, England are through to another final’. I’m bloody delighted to see that. What’s more, I think they have a chance of raising the trophy at the end of all of this: they can’t be favourites but they have a chance because England have come through, ultimately, in real, important, creditable style… but yeh, they were crap for toooo long, in this event.

Wyatt seized the day. She swished and cut and drove compelling (but not flawlessly) to a hundred and more, piercing the field with that characteristically lithe power, but also teasing them with the occasional near-fatal miscue. (Bottom line, she should have been on her way but for some poor efforts to snaffle an admittedly wind and/or spin-affected ball. Even the god-like (goddess-like?) and god-loving Kapp was guilty of a strangely discordant fluff. Wyatt swatted on).

Seasoned watchers will know that despite some evidence to the contrary, in #CWC22, it is England’s fielding that sets them apart and above the ‘minor players’ in the hierarchy of the world game. They are generally at a higher professional level: perhaps they should be, given the relative investments – the ‘resources’. However the keys to this semi-final were fundamental, not general. Wyatt and the now convincingly prolific Dunkley batted best; Ecclestone’s bowling was just too good.

Beaumont biffed the very first ball from Ismail to the boundary but was then in a pickle. Knight, though understandably fixated on batting long, got utterly stuck, failing to hit anything for an age, lest she offer a chance, then falling plumb for a disconcerting and potentially demoralising single run scored. Sciver smashed a stunning pull shot, nuttily, beautifully, then was cramped to another short one from Kapp, and merely spooned it to the ring. Jones, for the umpteenth time, threatened to unleash some quality but managed instead to ‘fail’ and fall, in another gift-wrapped, despairing moment.

In the middle of the night I had posted my own target before a tactical (3 hour, work-necessary) retreat: on this pitch, England must get 260 or 70. The pitch was obviously true-ish. Somebody was obviously going to go biggish. I hoped – but then daren’t hope – for more, from the women in blue.

When I re-emerged at 6 am, coincidentally bang on the start on the South Africa reply, I was wondering if Wolvaardt might ‘do a Wyatt’ and make 120-something. She felt like a threat. Shrubsole’s completely predictable but nevertheless thrillingly challenging inswing soon undid that storyline. A further early wicket – that of Lee, caught Sciver, at short midwicket – put England in command, particularly as the batting team felt light, or lighter than England, beyond that opening pair.

None of Luus, Goodall, du Preez or Kapp failed; they all got into their twenties or a little beyond. But in the early-middle overs Cross and Dean, despite the latter being mixed, made key inroads before the Ecclestone Parade came to town.

The young woman is a phenomena. Firing in those arcing or spearing mace poles. Relentlessly and somehow joyously. At you – at your toes! Irresistible. That speed, that parting of the curtains, pre-delivery. Mind-scramblingly good.

From about the sixth over it felt a little like the Ecclestone Moment might come, might sort this. (Knight, perhaps teasing out the the drama, kept us waiting). Whether this was some sublime instinct or (more likely) simply and prosaically A Plan, we will never know. In the event, it worked.

The last knockings of the South African innings became – either traumatically or deliciously – a rout. Six wickets for the Tall Girl from the North. A ‘shush’ to send off the (presumably previously lary?) Ismail. Theatre. With all this pressure on her, the ‘Best Bowler In The World’ unfussily performs. It becomes a right thrashing. England are there.

Australia are the best side in the world: England next best. It’s good that they meet. Haynes, Healy, Lanning, Mooney and Perry out-gun their English equivalents – certainly in terms of consistency. And Brunt and Shrubsole and even Ecclestone are less likely to repeatedly dent that winning machine. But this now is a final. And there will be nerves. And there may be sublime inspiration. I’m hoping it comes from England.

Knight *is due*.

Changes.

Unwise, to write whilst disappointed to the point of anger. (Unwise, actually, to get angry about sport, eh?) But I suspect that the three consecutive defeats in this #CWC22 have left those of us that are bothered about Eng Women* starting the Working Week in a right mood.

(*Nobody was watching, live, in the ground. Media coverage, though growing, will be miniscule compared to male equivalents. So yeh I’m bit cheesed orff; ’bout everything).

Lets draw up a swift Mitigating Circumstances column. To draw some of the venom. England have been pretty bad because:

Demoralised by a higher level Australian side, in a concerningly one-sided Ashes tour.

Bubbles/travel/boredom/homesickness.

Erm… something else?

These appear to be reasonably meaningful factors but do they account for manifestly below-par performances against West Indies and South Africa and that undeniable sense that England are in something of a mess? It’s right to acknowledge improvements elsewhere – ‘smaller nations’ catching up – but should that equate to or account for a steepish decline in performance levels for Heather Knight’s side?

The answer to that latter question is ‘maybe’; or, ‘it could’. Because pressure. Pressure from the rails, from under your collar, from inside the mind. England *suddenly feeling* vulnerable when they should still feel better, more solid, empowered. Because England are the second best side in the world. Meaning the answer to that question is also ‘no’.

South Africa have just beaten England in a tense but not exceptional match – certainly not, quality-wise. Player of the Match Marizanne Kapp may have thanked “her saviour” immediately after the game but she might have thanked any one a series of England fielders who again either spurned catches/stumpings or dived over balls that might have been stopped. Sour grapes? (Possibly: I’m soured, but I’m not sure anyone beyond Ecclestone can be satisfied with their contribution in the field. Given this is where England have stayed ahead of those developing sides – through what we might broadly call professional intensity and execution – the persistently shoddy work from England has felt genuinely galling).

Read the specifics of the match elsewhere. South Africa won it and deserved to win it but England’s batting was timid and one-dimensional and their fielding was badly off. Beaumont dropped an easy catch and was again, like her team-mates, ‘mixed’ – prone to dive over or past the ball. Jones, behind the sticks, was alarmingly in and out, Brunt and Shrubsole again relatively impotent.

The latter is somehow shielded from criticism (and there may be reasons for this) but it feels entirely reasonable to note that as a full-time professional athlete, in a universe where expectations have dramatically changed for the better, she is two stones too heavy… and this patently affects her fielding… and maybe to a lesser extent her bowling.

I have always been a huge fan – have gone on the record many times, to that effect. But it is not acceptable, any longer, that prime, professional athletes are so badly out of condition. This is one reason why Shrubsole should retire (and I expect her to) after this tournament; whatever happens over the remaining games. Anya Shrubsole has been a glorious intoxicant in the game, for a decade and more – arguably the best swing bowler in the world for much of that period. Now she should go.

Given that Shrubsole’s long, long-term partner is in a similar ‘twilight phase’, there’s a really fascinating link between the men and women’s international sides in respect of their opening bowlers. But I’m not going there. Katherine Brunt is (I repeat, like her colleague) one of the greats. Powerful, punchy but also loaded to the gills with a rare guilefulness, Brunt has had a low-key tournament. Could be powers fading. Could be tiredness.

There has been, quite rightly, talk of a double replacement or retirement, here. The Pretenders – notably Bell and Wong – have been drawing support concomitant to the criticism of the coach, in the absence of opportunity or ‘succession planning’. Brunt remains better and certainly more consistent than both… but sure, that proverbial clock is ticking.

All of which brings me back to the coach, Lisa Keightley. She’s done her work quietly, in the background: despite being drawn to more obviously charismatic characters, I have no issue with that. (Clearly, you don’t have to be an extrovert to be somebody people or players will follow). And yet I think she should go. The team energy has been somewhere between frail and limp, too often. There are simply too many errors going on. It feels – whatever that means – like the team lacks character. All of that is the coach’s responsibility: they are charged with making the environment.

We all have our own ideas about selection – that’s part of the joy of this, yes? My own admittedly left-field opinion, following a night in Hove where she did that thing where something ver-ry special gets announced, is that Mady Villiers had to be a fixture in this side. Maybe for that stunning, invigorating brilliance in the field alone. And Shrubsole should have been rotated in and out, or possibly simply de-selected, to bring on the newbees and recognise the modern realities re athletic non-negotiables. And, somehow, the likes of Beaumont and Jones and even Brunt should have been challenged more directly to perform or buck up, with the bat.

The squad’s felt too cosy; too willowy, even. Coach must not allow that to happen. Wyatt and Jones and Winfield-Hill endlessly gifting poor, premature dismissals to the opposition. Woeful catching becoming, or feeling predictable. Confidence paper-thin. For an age, Knight’s doughtiness, Beaumont’s application and Sciver’s power have carried the team – kept that chasing pack chasing. Now England look caught.

There is a chance that England could yet qualify. A slim one. If they do then they will be a threat, should they play to their maximum. So far, plainly, they have been devastatingly short of that aspiration. They will feel shrivelled and beaten in every sense…. and I guess I’m not helping here.

Pressure is real and not real. Keightley and Knight have to engineer the most astonishing of revivals. I hope they do it. If they don’t, then of course there must be changes.