It was not only the England team who were grateful to Ben Stokes in the victory over South Africa. So was everyone in the offices of the England and Wales Cricket Board, which is eager to promote this “once in a generation opportunity”.
The board can – and has – contrived lots of well-meaning gimmickry in an effort to galvanise interest in the 2019 World Cup. But all of its efforts were utterly outstripped by the eight-second clip shown on Thursday’s Ten O’Clock News of Stokes taking that catch to dismiss Andile Phehlukwayo on the deep midwicket boundary at the Oval. Even the usually laid-back Adil Rashid, who had bowled the ball, was moved to sprint 80 yards to embrace him.
Rashid was met by a beaming smile from Stokes, an all too rare sight in recent times. Stokes was overjoyed and, like everyone else, a wee bit stunned by what he had just done. “To be honest, I had a little bit of panic,” he said. “I was a little bit farther in than I should have been. The crowd’s reaction behind me was pretty awesome. I just tried to take that in as much as I could.”
Eoin Morgan, echoing the answered prayers of those at the ECB, said: “It was great for the game.” Moeen Ali, with another twinkle in his eye, pointed out it would have been a simple catch “if he had been in the right place”.
For those lucky enough to be in the ground it was impossible not to gasp and then add to the thousands of smiling faces. It was a magic moment to excite anyone with just a fleeting interest in the game, easy to understand, practically impossible to emulate: English cricketers enjoying themselves without inhibition, a rare and wondrous sight, capable of exciting and distracting the nation.
The game against South Africa could not have gone much better for England: there were some runs for all the batsmen except Jonny Bairstow – and even he cannot be considered out of form after facing only one ball; the bowling was reliable, with Jofra Archer leading the way and sparking many more superlatives; the fielding was universally brilliant, even if Jos Buttler made a few errors behind the stumps.
It has been possible to divide the World Cup teams into two groups of five, with South Africa inhabiting the top one, which is supposed to house the serious contenders. Well, they were swept away by an England side that mixed effervescence in the field with unusual canniness with the bat. After one game, only one game, all that optimism seemed justified.
Notionally the second five includes West Indies but they dispatched Pakistan so briskly at Trent Bridge on Friday that there may be scope for a rethink. Their bowlers, not necessarily the fastest in the tournament but most certainly the tallest, were aggressive.
They gave the Pakistan batsmen no more scope to drive than Michael Holding did to Test batsmen in the 1970s and 1980s. Against a stream of short-pitched deliveries the Pakistan batsmen were surprisingly inept, which left another captain beaming. After the simplest of victories, Jason Holder of West Indies mirrored the relaxed Morgan philosophy. “Everybody is playing with a smile on their faces and that’s how we play our best cricket,” he said at the end of a contest that lasted 35.2 overs on the most run-infested surface in the country.
So just about everyone is happy. At the Oval before the start of the England v South Africa match we witnessed the best opening ceremony to a cricketing World Cup in this country, admittedly not a very difficult accolade to achieve: there were a few appropriate words from Prince Harry, an elegant gymnast up in the air with the trophy and absolutely no spluttering daylight fireworks.
Sadly this may not guarantee the absence of any potassium nitrate in the air when the Hundred is launched in Cardiff next year but at least the choice of “Welsh Fire” as the team’s name reduces the need to build another bridge over the Severn to accommodate hordes of West Country cricket fans.
Meanwhile there will not be too many smiles in the Pakistan camp, whose next game is also at Trent Bridge – against England – on Monday. Pakistan went on to win the 1992 tournament in Australasia after starting badly – but not this badly. So England will be huge favourites to win in Nottingham and they may also be the favourites to be the first team to qualify for the semi-finals.
The schedule has them playing all five “second division” sides one after another: Pakistan, then Bangladesh, West Indies, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. If they can prevail against these so-called lesser teams then they really might be able to play with freedom in their last three fixtures against more fancied opponents, Australia, India and New Zealand. Six wins for any side will surely be sufficient to guarantee a semi-final slot.
There is much to look forward to this week beyond England’s progress. One never knows the origin of the next surprise in tournaments such as this but attention is bound to focus on the Hampshire Bowl on Wednesday when India finally play their first game of the tournament, against South Africa; then on Thursday Australia meet a buoyant West Indies team at Trent Bridge.
There should be much to admire but if you see a catch better than the one produced by Stokes at the Oval I will buy a Welsh Fire cricket shirt.