England expects, but will party be crashed?
WHAT a difference four years makes.
In the last edition of the World Cup England failed to get out of the group stage, embarrassingly turfed out of the competition by Bangladesh and playing a brand of cricket more dated than a spiral perm and leg warmers.
They enter this one as the top ranked side, red-hot favourites to claim their first ever 50-over world title and playing in a style that feels electrifyingly contemporary; an attacking approach from ball one that has seen Eoin Morgan's side rack up six of the top seven highest scores in the format since the last World Cup, going past 400 on four separate occasions.
Their power is based on a freewheeling top order - weakened slightly by the absence of Alex Hales following his second failed recreational drug test - and a battalion of genuine all-rounders that makes their batting run deep and provides the confidence to keep the foot down, even if wickets fall.
If it's a slug-fest on flat wickets few if any can match them.
However, in living by the flashing blade they are prone to occasionally die by it. The suspicion persists that when a plan B is needed, they are not readily able to find one. When it falls apart, it does so entirely.
The sense of destiny within English cricket is hard to avoid.
The next few months shape up as a 'carnival of cricket' previously unrivalled, a chance to claim a World Cup on home soil and re-energise the sport from top to bottom. With an Ashes encore to the big show as well.
It is why they have accepted coach Trevor Bayliss' modest return in Test matches, believing he can deliver in the shorter format. It is why, too, Hales has been removed from the dressing room despite his quality and actual ban expiring before the end of May. Nothing must be allowed to rock the boat.
And why, too, Jofra Archer will almost certainly make his way in to the final 15. Barbados-born (though a British passport holder through his father), Archer's eligibility was fast-tracked in time for this World Cup when the English lessened their own stricter-than-elsewhere residency rules of overseas born players.
Any fears that his inclusion risks unsettling the group that has taken them to this point are outweighed by hope and expectation his additional x-factor can see them over the line.
In a word: batting.
Since the last World Cup England have posted 300 plus on 35 occasions (at the time of writing). In the same period their closest challenger is India, who have done so 21 times. They have cumulatively gone at over six an over across the four years. No other team has done that. Or come close.
Openers Jonny Bairstow and Jason Roy are relentless run scorers, with Jos Buttler and Eoin Morgan of similar intent, while Joe Root plays the anchor role, nudging and scurrying while others tee off around him. An average of 59 and 14 ODI centuries speaks of his centrality to things.
The middle order is instructed to maintain the pace. Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes all have Test centuries to their names. The likes of bowlers Liam Plunkett, Adil Rashid, Mark Wood and Archer are all comfortable striking the ball if needed, too.
Expectation can occasionally be a burden, but home comforts, familiarity of surroundings and a partisan crowd should all work in their favour, too.
On flat decks that produce high scoring encounters this England side are a team apart. But on occasion some devilment in the track has seen the whole thing crumble dramatically. In the Champions Trophy in 2017 they were undone by Pakistan on home soil after failing to get to grips with a slow, low track. Playing one way means their in-match ability to change course can be questionable.
They have a collapse in them. Not a problem if it happens during the group stages. An end to four years of planning and hard work if it catches them in the knock out stages.
Their bowling, while strong, is not quite on the level of their batting. In spin twins Adil Rashid and Ali they are well served but the pace battery is more brittle. Woakes has a persistent knee injury, Wood - who can find explosive pace at times - likewise has a patchy injury record. Plunkett, vital to England's resurgence, has begun trailing off in form of late. It is why Archer has been fast tracked in to the set-up. Only Rashid and Woakes are in the top 20 ODI bowlers in the world, an anomaly for the No. 1 ranked side and a mark as to where their real power lies.
A man more responsible than most for building a side cut through with unshakeable belief. Quietly spoken but of steely self-assurance, he is the perfect captain and leader, both in word and action: it is difficult to ignore the instructions of someone who has scored just shy of 3000 runs at a strike rate nudging 100, with five hundreds, since he was thrown the hospital pass of replacing Alastair Cook as captain for the ill-fated 2015 World Cup campaign.
England's Test captain appears to relish the freedom from leadership in the short form of the game, responsible solely for runs and knitting innings together. Has over 5000 ODI runs to his name and will in due course become England's leading ODI run-scorer of all time. If he has a productive English summer, the team is likely to do likewise.
Anyone who saw Buttler smash a 77 ball 150 against West Indies earlier this year - or indeed his 50-ball century against Pakistan just this week - was left in no doubt as to his match winning potential. His second 50 in the Caribbean came off just 15 balls. Powerful but also full of tricks, Buttler's calm demeanour belies the violence of his run scoring.
Able to take a match away from any team he is the central cog in England's middle order engine with an astonishing career strike rate of 120.
For all the headlines garnered by England's big hitters their recent success has been in part dependent on the effectiveness of Rashid's leg spin. At the time of writing he has claimed 126 wickets since the last World Cup, more than any other ODI bowler in the same period. Working in tandem with Ali, the twin deployment of spin, especially in the middle overs, is a vital part of England's attack.
All markers point to England being the team to beat. It seems inconceivable they will fail to make the semi-finals. From there, however, uncertainty lies. Across 11 matches they are destined to falter once or twice at least. Should that happen in a sudden death match, their rise to the top of the rankings will be rendered hollow. The final beckons; the title could still elude them.
Eoin Morgan (captain), Moeen Ali, Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler, Tom Curran, Joe Denly*, James Vince**, Liam Plunkett*, Adil Rashid, Joe Root, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes, David Willey*, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood*
*May be replaced by Jofra Archer
**Likely replacement for Alex Hales
Thursday, May 30: South Africa (The Oval, 7.30pm)
Monday, June 3: Pakistan (Trent Bridge, 7.30pm)
Saturday, June 8: Bangladesh (Cardiff, 7.30pm)
Friday, June 14: West Indies (Southampton, 7.30pm)
Tuesday, June 18: Afghanistan (Old Trafford, 7.30pm)
Friday, June 21: Sri Lanka (Headingley, 7.30pm)
Tuesday, June 25: Australia (Lord's, 7.30pm)
Sunday, June 30: India (Edgbaston, 7.30pm)
Wednesday, July 3: New Zealand (Chester-le-Street, 7.30pm)