Freedom of expression clinched it for England
In the space of 48 hours, England have beaten two of the pre-tournament favourites with an ease that even their most fervent fans could never have imagined. South Africa have been pushed into the abyss, and Sri Lanka cling on by just a fingernail. If New Zealand beat England on Tuesday, the fancied Lankans too can head home. And though England have already sealed their semi-final place, Daniel Vettori and his side will expect no favours from a team that made Graeme Smith's world leaders look pretty ordinary.
"I hoped, but obviously we were pretty down in confidence after the Australia one-day series," said Andrew Strauss when asked about clinching the qualification with a game to spare. "I think one of the things we've done since coming here is to go out and show people what we can do, and not die wondering. That's come out in both the games we've played.
"That batting performance today was, I think, the best I can ever remember from England. Owais [Shah] took control of the situation, clearing the boundary that many times. It was a gem of an innings, well backed up by Paul Collingwood and then Eoin Morgan impressed again at the end. It was a fantastic batting performance."
England hit 12 sixes, a record for them in a one-day international. Half of them came from Shah's bat. "The Australia series wasn't good for any of our batsmen, really," Shah said. "Coming out here, we were probably in a dangerous place, with our confidence low. We lost pretty badly [6-1] to Australia, and we needed to go out there, play with freedom and express ourselves. We just backed ourselves to go out and play our shots, as you saw today with Eoin Morgan and Paul Collingwood in awesome touch. We put some really good partnerships together."
Strauss reckoned that a change in the mental approach had made all the difference. "We can play the shots," he said. "We do skills practice. The only thing sometimes is our mindset, whether we loosen the shackles and say: 'Let's go out there and take the game to them'. Fair play to Owais. He came in and whacked a six and just went with the flow after that. He really changed the momentum of the game because it looked like we were losing it. He and Colly played the spinners exceptionally well, which was crucial."
Shah has been the subject of much criticism in recent times, for soft dismissals and shambolic running between the wickets. He insisted though that he had never viewed the trip to South Africa as an entrance into the Last Chance Saloon. "I didn't think I was playing for my career," he said. "If you get dropped, you get dropped. That's life. If that's the way the selectors want to go, that's fine. As far as I'm concerned, I try and play every game as if it's my last.
"Even the other day against Sri Lanka, I felt that the correct thing to do was to bat through and try to see us home. Today, we had different conditions, a flatter wicket and I decided to take the attack to the bowler. And it came off."
Given his own problems with cramps over the years, it was predictable that Shah would be asked about it, given what had happened with Graeme Smith at the end of the game. "As far as cramp was concerned, it was about preparing well and hydrating," he said. "I'm really happy with the way I batted today. It was probably one of my best innings for England. I faced a few balls and didn't feel like the pitch was doing much laterally. I backed myself to play a few shots."
England had suffered a setback in the build-up to the game, with Matt Prior being taken ill, but Strauss refused to rule his first-choice wicketkeeper out of the competition. "He was pretty sick this morning, but these things can change very quickly," Strauss said. "Hopefully, he'll recover pretty quickly and be fit for the New Zealand game." Steve Davies, the Worcestershire wicketkeeper, has been called up as a replacement.
In Prior's absence, Morgan kept wicket, with the highlight being a stupendous off-balance throw to run out the dangerous Albie Morkel. "I think the fact that none of us really noticed him [Morgan] today speaks volumes for how good a job he did," Strauss said. "It was an exceptional performance from him behind the sticks."
In front of the wicket though, Morgan did far more than just catch the eye, clattering a stroke-filled and innovative 34-ball 67. "I've always felt that he's had the attributes to do well at this level," said Strauss who plays alongside him at Middlesex. "He's got a huge array of shots. He's a very calm individual and he seems to be in control of his game.
"It always takes a bit of time for guys to get used to playing international cricket. He's shown glimpses before and out here, these last two games, he's been as impressive as any 23-year-old I've seen. We're not going to put a lot of pressure on him. He's still learning but it's great to see him coming through."
There were suggestions that Sunday's victory was a warning shot across the bows with England scheduled to start a tour of South Africa in November. Strauss though was hesitant to look that far ahead. "It was a big match for us today, against the best one-day side in the world," he said. "So to win it and play in the manner that we did is clearly going to help our confidence, come that one-day series in a few weeks' time."
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo