England need to hold their nerve as Australia focus on the main chance

Vic Marks at Lord’s
Photograph: Gareth Copley/Getty Images

This must be a special match. This becomes obvious when listening to the England captain on the eve of the contest. He was so insistent that this was just another game. There were no extra nerves in the camp; England play Australia regularly; his team have played under this type of pressure before; it is not a must-win game.

Eoin Morgan is entitled not to over-hype the occasion and to keep his players cool. But the protestation that this is just a routine World Cup match was not entirely convincing. In fact, if England had beaten Sri Lanka at Headingley his view of Tuesday’s mouthwatering meeting with Australia would have more credence.

It is true that England can lose at Lord’s and still control their own destiny in this tournament as they strive to satisfy the bare minimum of expectations: reaching the semi-finals. But if Australia prevail then the nerves really start jangling, however icy-calm Morgan may like to appear. Then England might have to win both their remaining matches, against India and New Zealand, neither of whom have been beaten so far.

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In that scenario India and New Zealand will probably have the luxury of playing with the certainty of a semi-final slot. This brings a dangerous freedom to their approach. Unlike England, they will not be haunted by the consequences of defeat. However, they will be motivated to defeat Morgan’s side.

Both teams recognise the potency of the England lineup, their capacity to defeat any team on their day. They would calculate that their chances of winning the trophy are enhanced if England are not in the semi-finals. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, the other contenders for the semi-finals, offer less of a threat.

A spotless Lord’s awaited the two sides on Monday. The hover cover was in place against the possibility of a sudden thunderstorm as the mowers delivered the finishing touches to the putting green outfield. There are no spare seats available. And whatever the captains say, there will be extra tension in the dressing rooms.

With overnight rain on the horizon both captains might find themselves choosing to bowl first, an option that has diminished in popularity as the tournament has progressed. Morgan, given live grass on the pitch and dampness in the air, did not rule out playing just one spinner – presumably Adil Rashid – even though the inclusion of Moeen Ali as well leaves him with four in-form seamers in his side.

On Sunday at Lord’s in the match between South Africa and Pakistan the spinners were effective despite a tinge of green on the pitch. The one certainty is that Jason Roy will not be fit to play and there is no guarantee that he will be available for Sunday’s game against India at Edgbaston either.

England are trying to remain sanguine about Roy’s absence but this diminishes the threat at the top of the order. Indeed, if logic is to play any part in this contest – not always the case in much-hyped matches – then it seems that Australia have the edge among the openers. David Warner and Aaron Finch have been prolific at the top of the order, even if the former has surprised us with his modest strike rate. Currently they trump Jonny Bairstow, who looks in excellent touch in between the golden ducks, and James Vince, who always looks in fine form in between the 27s.

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Likewise Australia’s opening bowlers, Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins, have been excellent throughout – mind you, Jofra Archer and an improving Chris Woakes have not been too bad, either. The Australian captain uses his two gun pacemen shrewdly. Unless they are creating mayhem they bowl short spells even at the start of the innings so that Finch has the option to recall them mid-innings when he needs a wicket. England can afford to respect this duo and eye up the others.

Beyond the opening attack England have greater depth: their support bowlers, Mark Wood, who is having a fine tournament, Ben Stokes and a variety of spinners, can be more penetrating – and trustworthy. The same applies to England’s batting down the order, especially if Stokes and Jos Buttler are in the zone.

But ultimately it is about nerve. The serious players find a way to stay calm and to deliver when it really matters. The great ones crave a stage like the one provided by Lord’s, with every spotless white bucket seat occupied. This will not be the day to meander around the Nursery end uncorking a few bottles of bubbly while in search of old friends. It is one to remain glued to the seat and to watch the contest unfold because, contrary to Morgan’s pre-match musings, this matters more than usual.