This was not the most significant cricket match ever played, even in Cardiff, which may explain some of the empty seats: a T20 contest in a World Cup year makes little sense except that contracts have to be fulfilled. But there are always scraps of insight on offer no matter what the duration of the game. And a victory against the top-ranked T20 side in the world, Pakistan, is not be sniffed at, especially since England were missing so many regulars.
Guided by Eoin Morgan, who struck 57 from 29 balls, they won by seven wickets with four balls to spare on a chilly, sunny evening. It was too early for him to get over-excited afterwards. “It was a solid performance, a cagey affair and we played OK,” he said.
There was another opportunity to keep an eye on those eager to cement a World Cup place. Most obviously this includes Jofra Archer, who along with Ben Foakes and Ben Duckett was making his T20 debut in international cricket. Again Archer impressed with his composure and pace. In Dublin he propelled an eye-catching yorker; here he produced a perfectly directed bouncer that surprised Imam ul Haq, who could only fend haplessly to Foakes. Archer’s other wicket was the old leg trap; a slower-ball bouncer was caught just inside the rope at deep mid-wicket.
Moreover Archer, with a couple of stumps to aim at and Babar Azam, Pakistan’s best batsman on the day, stranded, did not miss with his throw. He looks comfortable in this environment and he has a bit of magic. It remains a mystery that the perceived wisdom is that Archer is competing with one of the bowlers for a World Cup place. It surely makes more sense that he should replace the second reserve batsman, especially since England’s bowlers, particularly this batch, are more likely to pick up week-long niggles. “It was another debut for him; he came on from the game in Ireland and showed us a bit more,” said Morgan.
Babar, who has enlisted for Somerset’s T20 campaign after the World Cup, was the mainstay of the Pakistan innings along with Haris Sohail. Together they added 103. Babar batted with easy orthodoxy, mixing crisply timed drives and glides; Sohail’s method was more muscular. In the field England were suitably reliable; they took their chances, the best of which was a one-handed catch by Morgan at extra cover and, like Archer, Chris Jordan also hit the stumps to complete a run-out, two moments that caused the Pakistan innings to decelerate. Most of the bowlers were on target for most of the time.
England’s pursuit of 174 was measured and they won with four balls to spare. Duckett smashed the ball straight to mid-off, after which James Vince and Joe Root added 45 together. Vince has never played an ugly innings for England – nor a match-winning one – and that pattern was sustained. There were the most felicitous of drives, three of which sent the ball speeding to the boundary. Then on 36 there was the anticlimax.
Imad Wasim, born in Wales and the most pragmatic of left-arm spinners, bowled way down the leg side. Vince fished at the ball and was surprised to be given out caught behind to what should have been a wide. After a quick consultation with Root, Vince reviewed but Alex Wharf’s initial decision was upheld even though there was the suspicion that the bat hitting the turf had been responsible for a faint noise. Somehow it was a typical Vince dismissal at international level. Until then he had looked princely.
Now the old guard of Morgan and Root took over; Morgan hit the big shots, clearing the boundary twice; Root batted with more delicacy and, as long as they stuck to this system, progress was solid. Whenever Root tries to slog he looks distinctly mortal. They had added 65 when Root was caught behind trying an ambitious upper cut.
This brought in Joe Denly with the match yet to be decided, which is just what selectors like to see. After the occasional nervous swish and the odd dot ball Denly acquitted himself well, especially since in the field his solitary over had begun with two long hops, which were cracked for six by Babar.
One beautifully timed leg-side drive for six off Shaheen Afridi was especially timely for Denly, whose batting offers so much more than his bowling at this level. If nothing else, the presence of Archer and the subsequent competition for places is focusing the minds of England’s cricketers nicely.