Oh, England. Plus ça change, plus c’est the same bleeding thing all over again. Engines revving, back seat loaded with buccaneering white-ball heroes, the England and Wales Cricket Board’s grand, musical Champions Trophy carnival float stalled decisively in Cardiff, undone by some familiar foes. For all the talk of adrenal new eras and white-hot modernity it was the old uncertainty batting first against nagging bowling on a grippy pitch that derailed England’s campaign against a Pakistan team who produced a wonderful all round performance in victory by eight wickets.
In one sense we have been here before, most notably four years ago at Edgbaston in the final of the previous edition of this competition. That defeat came on a pitch that might have been airlifted in from the subcontinent, just as the slow grip of Cardiff might have been prepared as a tribute to the desert tracks of the Emirates on which Pakistan have occasionally thrived in recent years.
But then the absence of run feast featherbeds has been a huge part of the fun of this tournament, creating an intriguing balance between bat and ball. Albeit to the detriment of the hosts, whose policy of proscribed aggression – the that’s-just-the-way-I-play dictum – looked confusedly single-gear in Cardiff.
To its undying credit sport has a funny way of refusing to do what it’s told in such circumstances. Unfortunately so for the ECB and a tournament that was in effect fought on two fronts. The aim this summer was not just to win the Champions Trophy but to win it right, to “create heroes”, grow the game, shout across the barricades and shed that sense of English cricket as a kind of North Korean-style sporting state, walled up behind its own barricades, sending out the odd pyrotechnic but largely invisible to great swathes of the surrounding populace.
The prospect of street parties, flags on white vans, a sea of Jake Ball masks in town squares was admittedly always a little distant. The Champions Trophy has been tangibly present over the last two weeks without quite hogging even the sports pages. Football continues to hound the summer at every step: the semi-final was drowned out for a while by great excitement at the publishing of next season’s Premier League fixtures.
Similarly there is a certain folly in the idea the best way to grow your game is the precarious path of trying to win a major trophy. As opposed to, say, central and local government providing resources for participation in schools or simply keeping the thing at least semi-visible on television beyond the pre-converted. Still, England playing a final on home soil has been the dream for the last three years of Andrew Strauss’s executive control, catnip to the marketeers, and a way of reaching out to those beyond the veil. Resources and planning have been diverted this way, domestic cricket meddled with and some notable success enjoyed along the way.