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Two wins for the title: England seek that semi-final mindset in do-or-die Ashes outing

Clarity of purpose at the crunch moment delivered both of England's World Cup titles. Can the same work for the Ashes?

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Moeen Ali, Zak Crawley and Harry Brook were in a jovial mood on the eve of the Test, England vs Australia, 4th Test, Old Trafford, July 18, 2023

Moeen Ali and Harry Brook both played in the T20 World Cup semi-final in November  •  Getty Images

England love semi-finals. Their best performances in both one-day and T20 cricket over the last five years - and maybe ever - have come in semis: the eight-wicket thrashing of Australia at Edgbaston in 2019, and the ten-wicket demolition of India in Adelaide last November.
Now, they are at the equivalent stage of an Ashes series: two wins away from a trophy. It is a different format, with different coloured balls and kits, but seven members of England's XI at Emirates Old Trafford this week have featured in at least one of those two semi-final routs, and two of them - Ben Stokes and Chris Woakes - played in both.
These situations seem to focus the minds of England's players, and sharpen their resolve. Their most recent semi-final defeat - against New Zealand in Dubai, in the 2021 T20 World Cup - came after a cruise through the group stage, which culminated in a defeat to South Africa in a game that was effectively a dead-rubber.
The scenario was very different to that in both World Cup triumphs. In both tournaments, surprise results early in the group stages left them on the brink of elimination, needing to win four games in a row. In both tournaments, they resolved to double-down on their attacking approach. In both tournaments, the clarity brought out their best.
In 2019, a rare team meeting at Edgbaston instigated by psychologist David Young prompted players to discuss candidly their fear of defeat and elimination ahead of their first must-win game against India. England resolved, as Woakes recalled in the book White Hot, that "If we were going to lose, we were going to go down swinging". It was Stokes who opened up first that day, having been encouraged by Young over coffee the day before.
And in 2022, Jos Buttler delivered a similar message at a training session at Allan Border Field in Brisbane, again before England's first must-win game - this time, against New Zealand. "If anything, let's fall on the positive side every time," he told his team-mates. "We're not going to go through the next few games and come away thinking, 'I wish I took it on a bit more.'"
Such moments often take on greater significance retroactively, assigned importance as inflection points in narrative arcs. Yet it was that clarity that Stokes alluded to at Lord's, in the aftermath of a defeat that left England two-nil down with three to play: "It's actually very exciting to know that the way in which we are playing our cricket couldn't be more perfect for the situation we find ourselves in."
England's ultra-attacking method with the bat came under sustained scrutiny in their defeat at Lord's, with an expectation that they would rein themselves in at Headingley. Instead, they doubled down: they raced along at 4.79 runs per over in the third Test, their quickest scoring rate of the series so far.
Woakes came into the side and played a significant role in that win, and acknowledged the parallels with those World Cup wins. "It maps it out for you, doesn't it?" he said. "There are no ifs or buts or maybes: you've got no choice but to go and win. That probably suits this team nicely, as it has done the white-ball team when we've been in those situations.
"Hopefully, those experiences of a few players can help them. Everyone knows that we've got to go out there and try and win: Ben's a big fan of not drawing Test matches. It does map it out for us and set it up for us that we have to go out there and win - and we are in Manchester, so I'm sure there'll be rain at some point."
Stokes has suggested that the weather forecast - which is bad all week, but particularly at the weekend - will play a role in England's approach, emphasising their determination to force a result. And that is where this Ashes Test differs from a World Cup semi-final: only one team actually needs to win.
"A draw's good enough for them," Stokes said. Pat Cummins insisted that Australia's "first preference is always to try to win", citing their disappointment at drawing the 2019 series two-all. But he also conceded: "As the game progresses, you maybe start working out how risky you want to be."
"It makes everything that we've been doing more relevant," Stokes added. "If we were to shy away from the task at hand, that wouldn't get the best out of us as a team in terms of the personnel that we have at the moment. Knowing we need to win this one… probably suits us even more, to be honest."
England's unprecedented success in fourth-innings run-chases under this regime has proved that they thrive on lucidity, stripping the sport's most impenetrable format back to something simple. If they do treat this Test like an Ashes semi-final, recent precedent suggests it will be worth watching.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98