Big picture: Pakistan chasing the almost impossible
So here we are: one last time in the group stages at Eden Gardens, and for both of these sides – almost certainly – one last time at this World Cup. As title defences go, it was an all-timer of a disaster for England, comparable not just with other cricketing fizzle-fests, but perhaps all sport: think France at the FIFA World Cup in 2002, or Lleyton Hewitt’s first-round exit at Wimbledon the year later. England went nearly a month between their only two World Cup wins, with six defeats – many of them pastings – littering their campaign, one so poor it could yet knock them out of the 2025 Champions Trophy.
England’s brand of cricket has been high-risk-high-reward for about eight years now, and having enjoyed so much white-ball success with it, the risks finally appeared to catch up this time. That style feels like it requires ultimate buy-in from players, and that requires confidence, which only comes from results.
Once the results began to turn awry – first a beatdown against New Zealand and then an upset against Afghanistan – things snowballed very quickly. Panic against South Africa, when they made three changes and unwisely chose to field first, was punished to the fullest. They would spend the next fortnight touring the country getting beaten by one side after another, before a relatively respectable showing against Netherlands secured them their second win. Team selection baffled, shot selection sometimes even more so.
Against Pakistan, though, they have the chance to sign off a wretched tournament on something resembling a high. Several of this England squad may not wear an ODI shirt again – certainly not in a World Cup – and it’s perhaps fitting that the last side they play against before their likely break-up is Pakistan. This brand of England has sizzled more against Pakistan than any other side, winning 14 of their 18 completed ODIs since the 2015 World Cup, including a then-World record total of 444 at Trent Bridge. Here’s a chance to play the old hits one last time.
In Pakistan cricket, hope is the last thing you lose, and so despite the near-insurmountable odds against semi-final qualification, they keep on dreaming. Qualification requires beating England by about 290 runs, and while England have had a bad tournament, it’s not an ideal position to be for Babar Azam’s men. It has been a campaign that has mirrored their 2019 tournament with frustrating faithfulness, losing just enough games to leave them adrift of New Zealand on net run rate (NRR). In the final game that year, they required a similarly improbable win over Bangladesh. It didn’t happen then, and it’s unlikely to happen now.
Pakistan will be annoyed that several of their players lost their form at the exact same time leading to their worst mid-World Cup run in history, when they lost four consecutive matches to leave them facing the exit. As with 2019, they lost one winnable game too many – West Indies in 2019, and Afghanistan in 2023 – and never quite had the clarity of purpose to keep their eyes on an NRR which remained negative for the best part of the tournament. To get past New Zealand now requires a miracle, and a sustained commitment to progressive cricket that Babar has frankly been unable to inspire his side to in all his years at the helm of Pakistan cricket.
At best, he can emulate what Pakistan managed four years ago, and finish off as the best of the rest. On the evidence of the cricket they have played, it won’t exactly be an unfair assessment.
England: LLLLW (last five completed ODIs, most recent first) Pakistan: WWLLL
In the spotlight: Jos Buttler and Fakhar Zaman
As puzzling as it was untimely, Jos Buttler‘s sudden absence of form and confidence at this World Cup has been one of several low points from an England perspective. For a man who played such a pivotal part in clinching the trophy four years ago, his ascent to the captaincy should have been the zenith of his ODI career. This tournament, instead, has been its nadir. A 43 against New Zealand to open the tournament was as good as it got for England’s most destructive batter, failing to manage even half of that in any of his next seven innings. However, Pakistan are his favourite ODI opposition, his average and strike rate ballooning to 65.25 and 150.86, respectively, against them, compared to career numbers of 39.79 and 117.16. The World Cup may have long gone, but he still has the chance to secure for his side a trip to Pakistan in a couple of years’ time, with a win assuring England of a spot in the next Champions Trophy.
Even as he found his touch to such devastating effect against New Zealand, Fakhar Zaman will be keenly aware of the poor timing of his drop in form. Just six months ago, he scored three successive hundreds and looked like the most dangerous opener any side would have at this World Cup. It was the sort of form he had maintained throughout this cycle, only to inexplicably elude him when it mattered most. Fakhar looked a shadow of his former self at the start of the tournament, and was dropped one game in. For a man made for the big occasion, he averaged 22 in World Cup matches until that point. He would finally remedy that with 81 and 102* in the two games since his return, but it’s destined to be just a little too late. At 33, this might just be Fakhar’s last World Cup game, which might free him up just that little bit more. And an unshackled Fakhar will always be one to watch.
Team news: No changes likely
England turned in something resembling a complete performance against Netherlands, despite a middle-order wobble that threatened to destabilise. Wholesale changes to that team are unlikely.
England: 1 Jonny Bairstow, 2 Dawid Malan, 3 Joe Root, 4 Ben Stokes, 5 Harry Brook, 6 Jos Buttler (capt/wk), 7 Moeen Ali, 8 Chris Woakes, 9 David Willey, 10 Gus Atkinson, 11 Adil Rashid
Pakistan’s bowling took a battering against New Zealand, but they are expected to field an unchanged side to the one that pulled off that near-miraculous DLS win chasing 402.
Pakistan: 1 Abdullah Shafique, 2 Fakhar Zaman, 3 Babar Azam (capt), 4 Mohammad Rizwan (wk), 5 Saud Shakeel, 6 Iftikhar Ahmed, 7 Agha Salman, 8 Hasan Ali, 9 Mohammad Wasim Jnr, 10 Shaheen Shah Afridi, 11 Haris Rauf
Pitch and conditions: Bowlers beware
There’s some grass on what looks like a dry pitch. It’s also off-centre, which will result in a short boundary one side. It’s expected to be hot and quite humid, with rain not in the offing.
Stats and trivia
Buttler needs 66 more to become just the fifth England cricketer to 5000 ODI runs. Of the four who have come before, only Joe Root boasts a higher average.
While England won the sides’ first three World Cup meetings, the tables have turned since. Pakistan have lost a World Cup match to England just once since 1983, winning five of their last six.
“Look, there should be hope at all times. At any stage, in any work you do, you should have positive and hope, and I firmly believe in that.” Pakistan captain Babar Azam hasn’t given up on the semi-finals
Danyal Rasool is ESPNcricinfo’s Pakistan correspondent. @Danny61000