Is this the promised end? If so, well, it’s been a blast England. And perhaps something did start to shift on Wednesday. As England’s batters fumbled their way to a rather weary-looking 166 batting first in this T20 World Cup semi-final, the Sheikh Zayed Cricket Stadium rang with scattered bellows, echoes, that familiar spooky soundtrack of plague-era T20 cricket.
If the age of Eoin really is entering its end days with this defeat, it must be said, England had pushed it all the way in good times and bad, from the wild prelapsarian ecstasies of New Zealand at Lord’s two years ago to the more deathly reeling in of Abu Dhabi.
They didn’t lie down. England looked like they were winning this game with four overs left and New Zealand also struggling with a worn, up-and-down surface. At which point a wonderful vengeful, redemptive piece of hitting from Jimmy Neesham, who swatted an 11-ball 27, transformed a fighting fifty from Daryl Mitchell into a match-winning knock.
Neesham had been batting as England took that super-over World Cup final win, back when the world was still young. He remains a hugely likable cricketer in a hugely likable team. Only the hardest English heart could decide this wasn’t, in some degree, a happy ending.
As for England’s white-ball era, this did feel, if not the end of something, then a step down that road. Such is the madness of the current schedule it is still possible to pursue the grail of holding both white-ball World Cups at the same time with another T20 instalment in Australia this time next year.
Eoin Morgan confirmed he has zero intention of making way before then or of breaking up this team. He has a point. Anyone can lose a game of T20. England were missing four gun players in Ben Stokes, Jofra Archer, Jason Roy and the death-bowling stylist Tymal Mills.
But these are also unusually gruelling times. England have looked tired in patches. The surfaces look tired. The whole sport looks tired. Next year’s 20-over World Cup is followed the year after by another 50-over World Cup. England’s batting order featured a 35-year-old, two 34-year-olds and only one man under the age of 29. How long can this iteration really hope to keep putting itself through this bubble-bound punishment?
Morgan is as much a strategist as batter these days, a selector, a mobile brain – and captaincy is the key skill in T20. He wants to take this one more round, to see it through to Australia next October. But that bell has been clanging distantly for some time now.
Perhaps the most disappointing part of this loss was the way the batting seemed to sag. At a key moment England dropped the throttle. This entire era has been built on adrenaline, fun, arrogance, anger. In this semi-final they were careworn, a little tense, a little careful batting first after New Zealand won the toss and sent them in, an aggressive move in the circumstances.
That first powerplay, Boult v Buttler, was always a chance to test England’s nerve, the commitment to going hard right the way down. In the event they crunched around in the low gears, but only got going at the death. It was a weirdly restrained England innings and a restrained England under Morgan is a strange beast.
Jonny Bairstow was out early, shovelling Adam Milne to Kane Williamson at wide deep mid-off. Still, 40 for one off six overs was a middling start. Jos Buttler the one England batter playing through a moment of real grace at this World Cup, was lbw reverse sweeping.
New Zealand are a nagging kind of team. They look to strangle you, slowly. And they did so. Time and again Dawid Malan stroked the ball out to Glenn Phillips careering like a drop of hot mercury around the cover boundary.
The hundred came up at the end of the 14th over, Moeen Ali went to 50 off 35 balls. It was wonderfully controlled hitting, calm rather than adrenal. Liam Livingstone hit one ball to the moon, then holed out, a little unfulfilled.
England finished with four wickets down and four sixes hit. Did they have enough fun? Did they swing with enough gusto? Did they chase the day enough? This will bother Morgan the most.
Certainly more than the poor 17th over from Chris Jordan that effectively swung the game New Zealand’s way after some fine strangulation from Chris Woakes, Livingstone’s all-sorts and Mark Wood’s high pace. Jordan’s plan to dish up half-volleys on Neesham’s pads proved flawed.
Mitchell, an ugly, bold, effective T20 player, produced a brave and decisive half-century. And that was that for England. A score that was technically par began to look wholly inadequate as New Zealand cut loose.
The Black Caps were deserved winners and will be popular finalists. For England the wider questions are how far does this defeat cut, how much more does this wonderful, transformative team still have to run? It isn’t immediately clear anyone in the current setup has the authority to make that decision, beyond Morgan.
This has been his era, his ship, his white-ball age. Defeat in Abu Dhabi was no disgrace. But it is a significant step towards that end point.