England's evolving ODI juggernaut

By confronting, and overcoming, the threat of elimination, they are now better prepared for a shot at ultimate glory than they were at the beginning of the tournament

The heart of English cricket, it is said, lives in the shires, and it was perhaps appropriate England should seal their World Cup semi-final berth in the most English of grounds, the idyllic and pastoral Chester-le-Street. Here the trees dwarf the open stands and you can see the top of the Lumley Castle, where the players go to be haunted.
This is the northern most outpost of English cricket - Scotland is only an hour's drive away - but supporters, with no sub-continental fans to beat them to the tickets, came from everywhere, and when Kane Williamson was run out, by a fingernail, literally, a dismissal as providential as it can get, the energy peaked in the stands. New Zealand had already fallen woefully behind but to the thousands attuned to World Cup misery this was a sign. The force was now with England. For the day at least.
Make no mistake, even though England had been anointed certain semi-finalists before the tournament began, this is still a massive moment in their history. This has been their year, but the pains of the past are not easy to erase. England have not made it to the last four since their World Cup dream was snuffed by two magic balls from Wasim Akram in 1992, and the dread is natural. In most cases, it is the dominant emotion for supporters of English cricket. But with the sun smiling on their fortunes in Durham, fans were filing out to the bars long before the last ball was bowled; a celebration awaited, whatever remained of a cheerful day was not to be squandered.
It was a canter in the end, the New Zealand challenge melted away once Ross Taylor was run out moments after Williamson's dismissal. But it has also been a tough - and stirring - week for England, and it has taken character to haul themselves up to their current perch. They have had some fortune - the weather cleared up to allow for pitches on which big scores could be mounted and the toss went their way in both these must-win matches where batting first became a massive advantage - but they overcame what is often the biggest impediment in these circumstances: the burden of pressure.
And their trial in this final phase has perhaps primed them better for what lies ahead. Unlike New Zealand, whose campaign has whimpered as it has gone on, England are now, once again, the team with the buzz. Not smug or complacent - they are, in fact, more aware of their weaknesses then before - but steeled to fight their way through.
What stood out in this game and the one against India was the way they won the opening battles with both bat and the ball. It was not merely the century partnerships Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow put on, it was the way they regained their mojo. In both matches, the significance of their contribution became even more apparent after their dismissal as those following them found their timing go awry as the surface grew progressively sluggish.
Their assault on Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal - two bowlers India rely on for a full 20 overs - was deliberate, calculated and breathtaking. It left Virat Kohli with no option but to resign to the inevitable. Against New Zealand on a much larger ground, but on a pitch offering no movement, they reverted to their power-hitting basics: staying still and belting the ball.
In Tim Southee's second over, Bairstow hit him through midwicket from middle stump, thumped him over cover with an extension of the arms and pulled a ball coming for his eyebrows over midwicket. All three strokes played with virtually no footwork, but each creating the opportunity for the next.
England's first 20 overs against India brought 145 runs without a wicket. India managed 83 for 1. England's first 20 overs today brought them 133 runs for one wicket. New Zealand crumbled to 87 for 4.
Chris Woakes gave away eight runs in five overs for the wicket of KL Rahul against India. Against New Zealand, Jofra Archer had 1 for 15 in his first five. In both cases, the opening batsmen had caused the maximum damage they could, and the opening bowlers had exceeded their brief. To retrieve matches from here, the opponents would have to beat impossible odds. They couldn't.
Even the struggle that came after the opening charge is likely to fill England with a new kind of confidence. Against India they went from 180 for 1 in the 25th over to 245 for 3 in 40th, with the run rate dropping from 7.20 to 6.12. Against New Zealand, they went from 194 for 1 in the 30th to 241 for 4 after the 40th, the run rate dropping by 0.5 in this instance. A few matches ago, the gradual dip in run rate would have brought out more aggressive shots, and perhaps the loss of more wickets, for the pitches had slowed down.
But now, with the awareness of occasion, England found adaptability. Ben Stokes knuckled down in Edgbaston before a flourish took him to 79 off 54 balls and England to 338. Eoin Morgan was building up to a similar performance here before scooping a ball that stopped on him to cover. Morgan acknowledged this change himself after the match.
The last fortnight has been some ride for England. But by confronting, and overcoming, the threat of elimination, they are now better prepared for a shot at ultimate glory than they were at the beginning of the tournament, when they had seemed destined to win.

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo @sambitbal