England cruise to victory with dream comeback contributions from David Willey and Sam Billings

A new journey, Eoin Morgan had declared the start of England’s World Cup qualification campaign. But, for all the excitement about England’s young white-ball brigade, it fell to two players who narrowly missed England’s World Cup triumph to ensure a serene start on the road to India 2023 with a six-wicket win over Ireland.

Sam Billings and David Willey both made their England debuts immediately after the 2015 World Cup, and were involved for the full four-year cycle – albeit more as a squad member, in Billings’s case – without making the final World Cup cut. Neither were selected for England’s one-day internationals in South Africa earlier this year, but the unique circumstances of this summer afforded both the opportunity of ODI recalls.

Both marked the occasion with career-best hauls – Willey taking five for 30 with the ball before Billings hit an undefeated 67 – to suggest that England’s new journey will still have time for more experienced players who have been on the fringes. 

Willey played 46 ODIs between the 2015 and 2019 World Cup, from the first game of the cycle to the very last, only 11 days before the World Cup opener. By this point Willey had a problem: Jofra Archer had qualified for England. After being included in England’s provisional World Cup squad, Willey was omitted from their final 15. He has described the time since as the toughest of his career, believing his international career over. After the tumult of missing the World Cup, Willey brought a new attitude to his return. 

“It was just special to be playing for England again,” he said. “My main priority was to enjoy it.” 

Taking only four balls to end a 14-month wait for an international wicket, when Paul Stirling flicked an inswinger to midwicket, certainly helped in that regard. Willey’s great gift to any limited-overs side is his penchant for swing: with an aggressive, full length, he generates more swing than any of England’s new-ball bowlers. 

Like Stirling, Andy Balbirnie, Ireland’s skipper, would not reflect on his dismissal – driving loosely at the start of his seventh over – with any fondness. When Willey snared the enterprising Gareth Delany, caught at point, and then Lorcan Tucker lbw first ball, Willey was on a hat-trick and Ireland were 28 for five. 

There was, as Balbirnie later reflected, no coming back from such an abject start. In their eagerness to attack the new ball, there was a sense that Ireland misread conditions, with this wicket less conducive to timing the ball than the norm at the Ageas Bowl.

So in the circumstances Ireland would have been relieved to salvage another 144 for their last five wickets, hauling themselves up to 172. That they did so owed largely to a man who has never played a game of cricket in Ireland. Curtis Campher played for South Africa Under-19s in England two years ago, but qualified for Ireland through his grandmother, joining the Ireland set-up when he impressed for Ireland Wolves – the national second-string – against Namibia in February. Campher had already decided to forge a career in Ireland and, with a Cricket Ireland development contract, moved to Dublin before Covid-19 prevented him from playing in domestic cricket. 

Balbirnie and Graham Ford, the head coach, had still seen enough to include Campher in Ireland’s squad, and injury to Mark Adair afforded Campher an opportunity as seam-bowling allrounder. Entering at 28 for five, with Willey on a hat-trick, qualified as about the most inopportune moment to bat for the first time in ODI cricket, but Campher immediately marked himself out as a cricketer of steel and skill, accumulating sensibly and coming through a trying period against Adil Rashid’s leg spin. 

While Campher’s half-century comprised 103 balls, without it Ireland’s total would have been in two figures, not helped by Simi Singh’s bizarre run-out. After defending into the off side, Singh hared down the wicket, resembling a player on Brian Lara Cricket who had accidentally pressed the controller to run. 

Campher actually considers himself a bowling all-rounder and, in a neat twist of fate later, repeated his dismissal of Banton two years ago for South Africa Under-19s; Banton tried to pull but was defeated by extra bounce.

At that point, England were 78 for four with Ireland zesty in the field despite Barry McCarthy suffering a knee injury in his first over. But then Morgan cut his first ball for four as if to end the fantasy that Ireland could defend such a meagre total. 

Morgan had shuffled himself down to six to give England’s new middle order – playing in lieu of Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler – an opportunity. It was one that neither Banton nor James Vince grasped. Indeed, Vince’s 25 was Vince in excelsis – an innings brimming with resplendent drives and effortless timing that was only wanting for runs. Its ending was quintessentially Vince, too, terminated by an airy drive to a delivery that moved off the seam from Craig Young.

Joe Denly had been due to play until being ruled out with a back injury, which afforded Billings his chance at number five. Quick to seize on anything short of a length with his strong pull, and characteristically inventive against spin – using his feet nimbly and hitting two wonderful reverse-sweeps to bisect two fielders placed for the shot against Singh – Billings showed why he still figures prominently in England’s thoughts. 

Billings’s sparkling contribution ensured that England could cruise to victory long before the floodlights had any use. Morgan sealed it with a six to continue his fine record against his former side. If this was not quite the grand homecoming England may have envisaged in their first home ODI as reigning World Cup champions, it suggested a side with the depth to withstand the many challenges that lie ahead.