England’s white-ball side keep showing the rest they’re playing a different sport

A little before 8pm local time in Melbourne on Sunday, Adil Rashid stepped up to bowl the 12th over of Pakistan’s innings. The 11th, bowled by Liam Livingstone, had just been swatted for 16. After a sluggish start, Pakistan were 84 for two and the tide of the game was beginning to turn. It was at this point, in the white heat of a World Cup final, that Rashid bowled a wicket maiden.

We should probably talk a little more about this. Except it’s not that easy. “The Wicket Maiden Heard Around The World” doesn’t really roll off the tongue. It doesn’t have a score or number attached to it. You can’t capture the brilliance of that over in a statue or a photograph. It ended not with wild celebrations or even a salute to the crowd, but a pat on the back and a medium-size round of applause.

You can try to break the over down into its constituent parts – the beautifully disguised googly that fooled Babar Azam into a return catch, the wicked variations in flight that prevented Iftikhar Ahmed from getting off strike. You could point out the statistical significance of the over in the context of Pakistan’s innings, perhaps even assign some glitzy, data-derived metric like Total Match HyperImpact. But none of this would really grasp the greatness of what Rashid managed.

In large part this is because the way we think and talk and write and feel about cricket is still essentially informed by its past. Nobody bothered celebrating or memorialising wicket maidens at the inception of T20 because they were common and unremarkable in red-ball cricket. We still talk about half-centuries as if they remotely matter, sanctify “partnership-building” when inefficient partnerships often loses matches. Crowds still applaud singles more than dot balls, which is probably the wrong way round.

The point is that this is an entirely different sport now and perhaps the greatest achievement of this England white-ball side is in recognising it faster and more fully than anyone else. Not everything they have done is new or incendiary. But as a blueprint of where cricket might be heading, it is the best effort yet produced by an international team.

This has also been a shift in mindset, one that has required shedding the decades of ingrained cultural baggage that have defined the values and mores of English cricket for generation upon generation. Namely, the idea that for an male cricketer there is only one true currency of greatness, one path to glory, and it begins with a couple of promising seasons serving your tutelage at Chelmsford or Northampton, before finally taking ownership of a smart navy jacket.

Go through this England squad and the remarkable thing is that it contains a single regular member of the red-ball team (Ben Stokes). Of the rest, 10 or 11 will probably never play a Test match again. Harry Brook will get another chance in Pakistan. Mark Wood and Chris Woakes may edge their way back, but there are no guarantees and in any case white-ball cricket has already secured their legacy. Once Stokes retires, who is England’s next genuine all-format star? Will there ever be another?

For a certain section of the audience, the natural reaction to this will be a certain lament. This in itself feels like a form of ingrained cultural exceptionalism. Who’s going to tell Rashid (two World Cup wins) he didn’t scale the pinnacle of the sport? Who’s going to tell Sam Curran he has been toiling and honing his skills in an inferior form of the game? Does anyone really care if Phil Salt plays a Test match?

For the new generation the divergence of the formats simply is, an immutable fact of the game. While England were celebrating in Melbourne, the brilliant 21-year-old Somerset batter Will Smeed was giving an interview to the Telegraph, announcing his retirement from first-class cricket without having played a match. And why not? He averaged 16 in second XI cricket last season. He scored a century in the Hundred. He’s quite clearly good at one form of the game and not very good at the other. This isn’t hard.

This is a process that began years ago under Eoin Morgan, perhaps the first England great who refused to pay lip service to Test cricket or allow it to define him. And yet for all the euphoria and ultimacy of the 2019 World Cup win, there was still a tendency to see it as something of a standalone project, a happy diversion from the real stuff (“and now for the Ashes! Jason Roy, this is your time to shine!”) This feels like a more tectonic shift. Of course the formats will continue to intersect. Players may go through red and white-ball phases (like Sam Billings, who has turned down next year’s Indian Premier League to try to nail down an England Test place).

But with split coaches and split captains, overlapping calendars and increasing specialisation, it will become increasingly hard to maintain the facade this is all the same stuff. Already there is a bubbling debate in India and Pakistan about whether greater separation is needed between their red- and white-ball sides. Australia, too, have largely resisted specialisation in favour of a core group of good, hard cricket blokes.

Meanwhile, in the greatest of ironies, it is the English who are kicking the dust off their boots, remorselessly beating a path into an uncertain future.