LONDON (Reuters) - Eoin Morgan’s England can cap a stunning white-ball transformation in Sunday’s Cricket World Cup final but awaiting them at Lord’s will be a New Zealand side chasing their own slice of history.
Twenty three years after Arjuna Ranatunga’s rag-tag Sri Lankan side clinched the title in Lahore, Lord’s will anoint new 50-over world champions after Australia and India, who shared the last five titles between them, wilted in the semi-finals.
Of the two protagonists who will square off at the ‘home of cricket’, the hosts have more at stake.
Morgan’s men are agonisingly close to completing a remarkable turnaround since being dumped out of the 2015 edition following a defeat to Bangladesh, a setback that changed an otherwise Ashes-obsessed England’s approach to one-day cricket.
They have since reinvented themselves as a ruthless one-day juggernaut, routinely racking up 300-plus scores with a fearless brand of cricket to reclaim the top ODI ranking last year after a five-year gap.
“It’s been a process for the last four years,” Morgan said after his team ended Australia’s title defence at Edgbaston.
“In 2015 we were way off the mark. We struggled against the top teams, and the teams that sat below that, so there was quite a drastic change in the way we played and the way we looked at playing our 50-over cricket.”
They now parade an intimidatingly deep lineup with Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow, comfortably the most destructive opening pair in contemporary cricket, leading the charge upfront.
Their 124-run stand in Thursday’s semi-final against Australia was their fourth successive century partnership in the tournament.
Morgan described Joe Root as the ‘glue’ in the lineup which includes a bevy of swashbuckling match-winners such as Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes.
They have had a potent pace attack but Barbados-born Jofra Archer’s spectacular rise has added an extra dollop of hostility.
One indication of the significance of the moment is that the final will be shown live on free-to-air television, a first since England’s victorious 2005 Ashes series.
“Very cool, particularly given the 2005 Ashes for me was sort of the day cricket became cool,” Morgan said.
“Throughout the whole summer, the game was on the front and back page of every newspaper going around, everyone was talking about and it that is really good for the game and it’s the game I love so it’s great news that it’s on free-to-air.”
Morgan, however, will not take anything for granted, especially against Kane Williamson’s team who upstaged India in the first semi-final in Manchester.
Matt Henry and Trent Boult blew away India’s vaunted top order in a low-scoring thriller and with Lockie Ferguson in the ranks, they could be quite a handful for any batting lineup.
“I think New Zealand throughout the whole tournament has been probably the hardest side to beat and the best side in the group stages,” Morgan said.
“I think their performance in the semi-final was probably their best. They will be a difficult side to beat on Sunday.”
The 2015 finalists began well before three back-to-back defeats nearly scuttled their campaign in the group stage.
Against India, Williamson and his men showed how to defend a low total against a strong lineup, complementing their accurate bowlers with trademark sharp fielding.
The only grey area is their batting, which relies too heavily on Williamson, comfortably their leading run scorer with a tournament-high 91-plus average.
Ross Taylor topscored for the team against India but opener Martin Guptill has been woefully out of form since his 73 not out in their opener against Sri Lanka.
Known for punching above their weight in the World Cup, New Zealand have the chance to go one better than their seven-wicket defeat to Australia four years ago.
“I’m sure people back home are pretty excited and, you know, another great opportunity to play in a World Cup final,” Williamson said, promising to “play our best cricket” on Sunday.
Reporting by Amlan Chakraborty in London; editing by Toby Davis