England keep firepower under wraps for World Cup clash with Black Caps

Aday out from the game that could either all but end or completely redefine their tournament, against New Zealand at the Gabba on Tuesday, there was no fizzle of excitement around England’s training camp, no sense of nervousness or growing anticipation. If anything it leaned the other way: some of the batters barely batted, many of the bowlers barely bowled and everyone seemed to spend a fair proportion of their time sitting down.

As ever on this tour the session was optional and though on this occasion all the players opted in they were free to decide what to work on.

Most notably, Ben Stokes turned up some time after everyone else. He walked a few slow laps of the boundary rope at Allan Border Field – the small ground just north of Brisbane’s town centre where Australia’s national academy is based, and where the World Cup teams have prepared when the Gabba has been busy. He was deep in conversation with the team doctor and then sat down again.

Stokes, whose knee injury has very much been managed rather than cured, is being described as “fully fit”.

Those inside the camp, however, say there has been a sense of nervous tension since the squad left Melbourne on Saturday, the task ahead of them as clear as that city’s skies had been murky.

“It’s a T20 World Cup and this is why we play the game of cricket,” says the assistant coach, Paul Collingwood. “These guys are talking about that, and when you’re in these situations, this is what sometimes gets the best out of your game.

“We’ve got players in our team that we know when it comes to the crunch, when it comes to the big games, they can stand up and be counted.”

Well, yes and no. Nobody can seriously doubt the ability of Stokes, for example, to seize a big occasion by the scruff of the neck, hurl it to the floor and straddle it like a donkey, but the idea this is a squad that will turn it on at the right moment seems a little optimistic. When the right moment came against Ireland this quality was nowhere to be seen.

Since arriving in Australia, initially for a T20 series against the hosts, England have played three full competitive matches, one faintly glorified friendly and two rain-abbreviated games. Their players have produced 23 innings lasting 10 or more balls.

It is perhaps telling that four of the top six of those ranked by strike rate came in the game that meant nothing, a warm-up against Pakistan. So much for the big occasion.

More encouragingly, it was the only one of those games played at the Gabba, where they face the Black Caps.

“This is why we play the game – it’s cut-throat and you’re right on the edge,” Collingwood says. “The power that we’ve got in the batting lineup has always been something that a lot of teams have feared and we’ve got to make sure the guys are in a mental frame of mind to use that.

“In the must-win games you’ve got to make sure that you’re on the more aggressive side of the line, rather than be conservative. I’ve always said if you want to win World Cups you’ve got to be a step ahead of the other teams and these guys have got the firepower to be able to do that.”

There is not much between the teams in terms of firepower. In the past three years of international T20s, nobody in the England side with more than two innings behind them has scored as quickly as Finn Allen, the Kiwis’ 23-year-old opener, or their all-rounder Jimmy Neesham. In 26 matches in the past 12 months, England have scored at 8.79 runs an over, New Zealand at 8.76.

For all that, even the Kiwis believe they are at a disadvantage. “England have probably been a leader on that front for a long period of time and they have a long batting lineup with power throughout,” says the seamer Lockie Ferguson.

“Our brand of cricket may not look as aggressive as theirs, but we need to stick to what we’ve done well and make sure we throw our own punches in our own way.”

If they get that right, it could be a knockout blow.