'The best is yet to come'
England's cricketers are in a World Cup final. The leading bowler in the tournament is 22 years old and English, with 14 wickets at the disgracefully meagre 9.35. England can also lay claim to the World Cup's top run-scorer, who averages a smidgen over 75 with an urgent strike-rate nudging 92. What riches. These are not hallucinogenic dreams of a frustrated nation; these are cold, hard fact. England's women are on the verge of the biggest moment of their careers.
Sixteen long years have passed since England last reached a World Cup final, but the team themselves are taking success in their stride. This has been a golden period for England's women, who retained the Ashes last year before walloping South Africa and India. Until their defeat to Australia on Friday (a dead rubber, as it happens) they had won 17 games on the trot, an achievement that the men can only dream of emulating in any form of cricket, least of all in one-dayers. For their phlegmatic captain, Charlotte Edwards, the success they have enjoyed so far is a result of two key factors: talent and hard work.
"We always realised this was our opportunity to do well this time round, but we were realistic," Edwards told Cricinfo. "We knew we'd be up against some tough opposition - being India, Australia and New Zealand - but having done well against them over the last 12-18 months we were confident we could do well.
"As we all know, in a World Cup you have to play good cricket pretty much every game, and we've been lucky enough to do that so far apart from yesterday's minor blip. We were confident coming in but obviously can't take anything for granted and we haven't. We've taken every game as seriously as we could and wanted to win every single match."
Yesterday's "minor blip" may have ended their impressive winning streak, but it was not without its silver lining. Claire Taylor, the evergreen right-hander, fell one short of notching yet another fifty to add further weight to her status as the world's top-ranked batter. At 33, Taylor is the sage of the team and complements the youthful pride of the side's younger members.
England's bowling attack is in similarly rude health. Isa Guha is the top-ranked bowler in the world, while Laura Marsh is the tournament's leading wicket-taker. This is the sort of balance that sets apart the good teams from the excellent, and England - with an injection of young, fearless players - are undoubtedly worthy World Cup finalists.
"We have really, really good youngsters who are performing on the international stage and we have experienced people in Claire and myself, who are helping them through," Edwards said. "The real strength is, these youngsters have no fear of anyone, and I think that's a fantastic place to be in. They've had success from when they started playing, so all they know is that they're winning. Me and Claire had to take the hard route to the top! It's probably made us the people we are and the players we are."
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of England's performance in this World Cup is their frankly un-English determination to strive for perfection. Second-best will not do for Edwards. "I don't believe we've played our best cricket yet," she insisted. "We've been really tough on the girls. Every time we think we're not playing as well as we should, they come back with a really good performance. I'm sure the girls are going to react to [losing to Australia] in a positive way and come back like they have in recent times.
"We've not played our best, which is exciting for us as a team, and the coaching staff I believe. I'm sure we can deliver on the big stage on Sunday; we've had a magnificent 18 months of cricket and it would be a great way to top it off on Sunday."
The England women are now just one win away from claiming the most presitgious trophy in their sport, and none of this has come by chance. Edwards, their passionate and determined leader, has been instrumental in improving the players' games to ready them for the grand challenge of a World Cup.
"Two years ago I realised the girls had to be tougher. International cricket is tough. We had a quadrangular series in 2007 and we performed really badly out there, and if you'd have said back then that [now] we'd be in a World Cup final, I'd have said there would have been no chance," she said. "We came back from there, had to have a hard look at ourselves; we weren't tough enough and weren't playing good enough cricket. We've been so lucky to have Mark Lane take over the team, and Jack Birkenshaw too, and they've instilled a lot of belief in the team. We've got tougher as a group and we're playing better cricket. Key performers are performing, and ultimately we enjoy playing cricket with one another, and I think that's definitely shown in our results."
Sunday's final, against New Zealand, is perhaps more special for Edwards than for England's younger personnel. To qualify for her first World Cup final after four attempts is a dream come true. "Since I was a 12- or 13-year-old, when I watched them [England] lift it in 1993, it was always a dream of mine to win the World Cup. So I think it's definitely the pinnacle of women's cricket and something I'm desperate to get my hands on."
Bigger, even, than the Ashes? Well, yes. England's women received a ticker-tape parade in 2005 along with the men for beating Australia, but as Edwards is quick to point out, Test matches are fewer and farther between in the women's game. One-day cricket may still bewilder the men but the fairer sex are far more adept. "The World Cup is the pinnacle for us. We don't play as much Test cricket as the guys; obviously the Ashes is important, it's against Australia and the tradition of it all. But for me, it's the World Cup which really matters."
England's last 18 months have dripped with success and encouragement for the future, but to hold the title of world champions will be the biggest boost to a sport that remains in the shadow of men's cricket. It is nothing less than Edwards, and her predecessors, deserve.
Sky Sports is showing the ICC Women's World Cup Final exclusively live, 11pm, Sky Sports 2
Will Luke is a staff writer at Cricinfo