Cricket World Cup 2023: 'England found a blueprint to avoid falling apart'

It turns out David Willey nearly didn't get on the plane to get to the World Cup.

The real England didn't arrive in India until it was time to go home.

Throughout England's campaign there has been confusion.

There have been various theories for what made the defending champions lose six of their first seven games - a collective loss of form, poor preparation, The Hundred, bad decisions and a mix of all of the above and more.

Now there is uncertainty at how to feel after they saved their best performance for the day before they fly home.

Frustration that it has come now? Disappointment?

Or simply pleasure in another World Cup win which avoids further embarrassment?

"Definitely frustration," said coach Matthew Mott.

"We know we're a very good team and unfortunately when it mattered the most, we didn't perform as well as we would have liked."

With the bat in Kolkata, England were as close to their 2019 World Cup-winning selves as we have seen across five weeks in India.

As he did in victory against the Netherlands on Wednesday, Jos Buttler won the toss and opted to bat first.

They scored 337-9 with a good opening partnership, built on in the middle overs before an attack at the end.

Early wickets with the ball then set them on the way to a comfortable victory against the side that will finish fifth in the tournament.

Those muddled minds of the opening weeks, England were spooked into wanting to chase by the dew in Ahmedabad against New Zealand, were gone.

This was the blueprint. This is what could have been.

In the week of Diwali, England finally found the light.

But then again it is always easier to think clearly when it does not matter and the pressure is off. Sport is about performing when it matters.

No-one remembers the goalscorers in the last World Cup third-placed play-off - Mislav Orsic and Josko Gvardiol, if you're wondering. They remember Angel di Maria, Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi.

"We're incredibly disappointed," Mott added.

"We came here with certain expectations and haven't delivered on that.

"I'm really proud of the way the guys finished and showed a lot of tenacity and resilience when we were out of the tournament a couple of weeks ago."

It should not be forgotten that both of England's warm-up games in India were impacted by rain in Guwahati.

This squad's only preparation for this World Cup was four, low-key matches against New Zealand in England in September.

Still, their XI in the opening game had never played together before.

Mott said he had "no doubt" things would have been different had the preparation been better.

"But I'm not sure how that's possible given we have to give back to the domestic game," he added.

"We don't want to take our players out when they can be playing.

"We play the cards we're dealt. We don't make the schedules. And it's certainly not an excuse."

Mott admitted there were "learnings" he would take from his time in India - things he would improve if given the chance again in four years.

He refused to reveal them, leaving us to ponder whether some blame lies with muddled selections, calls at the toss or the preparation, though the Australian admitted the timing of the board's central contract announcement "was not fantastic".

That call left Willey as the only member of the 15-man squad without a deal and led to him announcing his retirement while England's hopes were still alive in Bengaluru.

"If I'm being brutally honest I wasn't sure whether I was going to come to the World Cup even to the 11th hour - the morning that we were joining up at Lords," Willey said.

"It's not just that I haven't been offered a contract.

"It's how I feel valued as an England player there when I look down that list of other guys that have got contracts."

And with others who will be desperate to play at the next World Cup on the sidelines, it was Willey who struck with the second ball of Pakistan's chase.

Two further wickets, Fakhar Zaman caught at mid-off and Salman Agha at mid-on, took him to 100 one-day international wickets in his final game.

"It was nice to be able to go out there with clarity on what I'm doing beyond this," said Willey, who was given the honour of leading England out onto the field.

"My situation with England has always been, I know I'm on the fringe, I'm next in if there's an injury, very much a squad player and I've been very much at peace with that.

"But it doesn't mean it's easy to be in that position, never knowing where you stand from tour to tour.

"So, look, to go out there and just be able to enjoy my last game of cricket for England was lovely - the boys have been great."

Perhaps that last line is what matters the most as England exit.

At the end, Buttler stood alone on the boundary edge for a moment looking out across the iconic Eden Gardens before his team-mate Ben Stokes put an arm around him, followed by four heartfelt pats on the back.

This tournament has been brutally tough for England and, in particular, Buttler, who had to answer whether he was still the right man to be skipper a year on from winning the T20 World Cup in Australia.

In Ashes series past, England teams have fallen apart when things turned sour. This one, once the greatest England have produced in white-ball cricket, did not.

That is something we can cling to.