England do it pragmatically
I can still see it now in my mind's eye, me and my dad looking down from our seats at the top of the Compton Stand. The Prudential World Cup final, England versus West Indies, 23 June 1979. The sun is out after a muggy morning. West Indies have made 286 for 9 from their 60 overs, a score always remembered for Viv Richards' 138 not out, an innings concluded by a six into the Tavern from the final delivery, the new King walking outside his off stump to flick Mike Hendrick's full toss deep into the crowd. Curiously, it hadn't been the best knock of the day. That had been Collis King's 86 from 66 deliveries, a game-changer that seemed to remind Viv and the rest of the West Indies side that they were cricket's dominant force.
Now Brearley and Boycott were batting against Roberts, Holding, Croft and Garner, and something strange was happening. It was not so much Geoffrey, who could, and usually did, bat as uncompromisingly as they bowled, but Brearley, who was stroking a high-class attack across the ground on a sunlit afternoon.
In 1979, 286 felt unattainably distant; the equivalent today of perhaps 340 from 50 overs. The final was only the 74th ODI ever played, and the game was quite different then. The ball was red, the cricketers wore whites. Sixty overs per side carried the appropriate payload of frivolity while allowing the players to perform "properly" in a way they couldn't do, for example, in the Sunday League, when innings flashed past in 40 overs and bowlers were required to limit their run-up to eight yards. There was no 30-yard circle: all nine men could field on the boundary if they wanted, and no one had ever heard of a Powerplay.
There had been one World Cup before, also in England and won by West Indies, who, in the intervening years, had finalised a strategy that was revolutionising the game: four brutal fast bowlers, seven attacking batsmen.
Superficially the numbers from that England innings seem to demonstrate an almost charming naivety, combined with the usual stiff-upper-lip attitude towards any kind of change. When Brearley was dismissed for 64, his side was 129 for 1 in the 39th over. Then Boycott, who had taken 17 overs to reach double figures, went for 57 from 105 deliveries and England endured a panicky collapse to Joel Garner and his mighty yorkers, hurtling down, it seemed, from a height equivalent to the third deck of the pavilion.
Yet viewed through contemporary eyes, when Brearley was out England needed 158 from 22 overs with nine wickets in hand. Not a gimme, but certainly no reason to abandon hope. And history has offered its revisions; there are plenty of quotes from gleeful West Indies players implying that they were only too happy not to have taken a wicket. But of how the game was poised at tea (yes, they used to stop for tea, too), when England were 79 for 0 after 25 overs, Gordon Greenidge later wrote: "If Brearley and Boycott had been more adventurous [after tea] the outcome of the whole match might have been different. They failed to realise that we were rattled and disheartened by our failure to part them."
Rattled and disheartened. I've often thought of that partnership during England's Champions Trophy run, and throughout Cook's captaincy of the 50-over side. For very different reasons, Cook's England appear to have arrived in a similar place. In progressing to the semi-finals, they have made two of the three highest first-innings scores of the group, and have set out a strategy that equips them to win matches with the kind of moderate totals that arise on English pitches in a wet summer.
While Boycott and Brearley opened because they were opening batsmen, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a deep statistical conviction behind England's current method. They are not a team that is tooled out to make or chase enormous scores, but they are ruthlessly efficient at setting and defending competitive ones. They have placed their chips on coming through the tournament without having to chase a 320 score, and they are riding odds that appear to be in their favour.
It's a strategy that infuriates pundits because it is built on pure pragmatism and the elimination of risk. It can seem almost counter-intuitive in the current age, but if England are doing it, you can bet that the numbers add up, because that is how they structure their approach. They are, as ever, controlling the controllables.
It seems strange to think it, but had the current regime been in charge back in 1979, Boycott and Brearley would have been their choice too. Now if only Geoffrey had got on with it after tea…