For Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow, it must have felt like a lion’s den.
It was difficult discerning Edgbaston from Eden Gardens as a pro-India crowd welcomed the players onto the field with their usual cocktail of colour and clatter, turning up the volume when the PA announcer revealed that Mohammed Shami was to get proceedings under way.
Not only did the tension among the smattering of fans sporting England colours feel palpable, there was also the external pressure. The openers entered the fray knowing that the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup 2019 hosts and pre-tournament favourites potentially required victory over an unbeaten India and another against New Zealand to reach the semi-finals.
And then, second ball, Roy, having missed successive defeats to Sri Lanka and Australia that had reminded England of their competition mortality, set the tone for proceedings. The opening boundary was a classic example of the Roy genre of batting: a meaty square cut sent racing across the unused squares to the fence. Shami nodded, returned to his mark and, a couple of balls later, nipped one back that narrowly missed off-stump.
The air filled with anticipation once more. Roy waited, back-lift high and poised. Shami found a similar line and length, only for the batsman to show the guile to match the gusto, leaning classically into a drive that raced through the covers. The scoreboard only showed four additional runs, but this felt more significant; suddenly, everything was rosy in England’s garden once again.
“I definitely think Bairstow is complemented by Roy’s presence,” Brendon McCullum told ICC. “The presence of Jason Roy and his ability to attack the opposition is something he feeds off. We saw the impact Roy not being around had on Bairstow as well. They are playing really well and have found a nice balance between one another’s games."
Roy’s eight runs off that first Shami over were the first of 160 the duo put on. Bairstow would go on to make 111 and Roy 66, as England reached a winning total of 337/7. At Riverside Durham three days later, against New Zealand, the script was similar. England faced what appeared to be a do-or-die situation, and their openers did a whole lot of doing. Their stand this time was worth 123. Bairstow again reached three figures and Roy hit 60 to set England on a path beyond 300, and to another crucial triumph.
“They’re both very, very good players at the top of the order and the rest of the gameplan follows,” McCullum said. “A lot of guys in the middle order like to operate with a slower strike-rate and be more consistent, so it’s vital they get off to a good start strike-rate-wise at the top. It just releases a bit of pressure.”
“It’s exciting,” Morgan said. “Guys are buzzing and laughing at the shots the two guys are playing. Good balls are being hit for four or six, and they’re so difficult to bowl at. You have to laugh at it."
Roy and Bairstow’s impact isn’t just significant for England. As the innings pile on and the century partnerships keep being racked up, they’re reaching rarefied, nay, uninhabited air. The duo, currently, are statistically the greatest opening pair in ODI history – by a wide margin. Not only is their average – 67.7 – over 15 runs higher than that of the next-best pair among those to have opened together in at least 30 innings, their individual strike-rates are greater than that of any top-order batsman to have played at least 40 innings in the game’s history. “When they’re going, they can be very difficult to stop,” Kane Williamson, the New Zealand captain, said. “It’s a challenge.”
For Morgan, the most impressive feature of the duo's batting is the manner in which they dovetail. “They’re outstanding,” he said, after England’s 119-run win over New Zealand. “Both of them ebbed and flowed. Jonny got off to a flyer, and Jason was quite slow, but then Jason caught him up and Jonny slowed. It was really brilliant to watch. Normally, you have two guys competing together the whole time. That doesn’t happen in normal partnerships; it’s what happens in great partnerships. They’re extremely dominant as a partnership.”
And so, England, having overcome their mid-tournament wobble, march on to the semi-finals in pursuit of their first World Cup trophy. Should they reach the pinnacle, it’ll be thanks in no small part to an exceptional opening combination that is redefining ODI cricket with peerless performances.
- By Matthew Sherry