England end their disastrous World Cup defence with a win
It wasn’t enough to paper over the cracks of a wretched campaign, one that marks the end of the road for several players in one-day internationals as England refresh their ageing ranks.
But it provided succour of sorts and guaranteed qualification for the 2025 Champions Trophy, even if that was the equivalent of winning a packet of crisps in a raffle in which the first prize was a lifetime’s subscription to The Yorkshire Post.
Returning home to whatever is the opposite of an open-top bus parade, with Pakistan the only leading nation that they beat at the tournament en route to six defeats in nine matches, England will want to quickly forget one of the worst trophy defences in memory.
This was a last hurrah, a game for the road, and although the passage of time will eventually recede from memory the last few weeks, in favour of much happier recollections of what this group of players has achieved, it was a game that showed what might have been and, given the quality and class that they still possess, what should have been, too.
After winning the toss and choosin g to bat, England paced their innings well, with every member of the top-six contributing.
Throw in a useful cameo from David Willey at the end (15 from five balls, including an outrageous reverse-scooped four and crunching straight six off Mohammad Wasim), and England’s 337-9 had the look of a winning score on a pitch that was never a cakewalk for batting.
So it proved, Pakistan subsiding for 244 in 43.3 overs, their faint hopes of reaching the semi-finals ended on a day when only Agha Salman (51) made a half-century.
Willey, afforded the honour of leading out England for the national anthems before play, starred with the ball with 3-56, finishing with 100 ODI wickets on his 73rd and final appearance and the man-of-the-match award to boot.
Quite why England have not seen fit to give the 33-year-old former Yorkshire all-rounder another contract is a mystery; he has been arguably their best player at the World Cup , and it said everything that when Stokes caught Salman at mid-on to give Willey his milestone wicket that there were smiles all round among the England players.
It was perhaps inevitable that England would prevail at Eden Gardens, Kolkata, to emphasise just what a desperately poor tournament for them it has been, given that they are eminently capable of performances like this.
Bairstow and Malan withstood some good bowling and sharp movement at the start to fashion an opening stand of 82 in 14 overs, Stokes and Root then adding 132 for the third wicket at better than a run-a-ball, the irrepressible Stokes - fresh from his hundred against the Netherlands - leading the charge.
One reverse slog-sweep for six knocked him off his feet, such was the force that he got into the stroke, his power and placement at its brilliant best.
When he finally gets his dodgy knee sorted in the coming weeks, England might just have a half-decent player on their hands (only joking).
Pakistan’s fielding was generally good, although Shaheen Shah Afridi missed a couple of opportunities off his own bowling - most notably Stokes on 10, a costly reprieve.
But Shaheen and Mohammad Wasim played their part with a couple of wickets each, as did the former Yorkshire pace bowler Haris Rauf, the most successful performer with 3-64.
Willey struck with the second ball of the Pakistan reply, pinning Abdullah Shafique, and he c laimed another scalp in his next over when Fakhar Zaman swatted to mid-off (10-2). It didn’t settle matters but it did set the tone, Babar Azam (38), Mohammad Rizwan (36) and Saud Shakeel (29) flourishing briefly but never decisively.
Instead, the England spinners, Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali, were excellent and found appreciable turn, both taking two wickets as Rashid ended the match with 199 ODI wickets on his 135 appearance.
The Pakistan pace bowlers enjoyed themselves in the closing stages, Shaheen clubbing 25 before Rauf (35) and Wasim (16 not out) shared 53 for the final wicket off 35 deliveries, the highest stand of the innings.
In that respect it was a tale of what might have been and, perhaps, what should have been for Pakistan too, emphasising their top-order failings.
And so both teams return home unfulfilled, capable of so much more than they produced.