There can’t have been many punters who left the County Ground at Bristol on Sunday night feeling short-changed. With Moeen Ali scorching all before him with his sensational 53-ball hundred, and Chris Gayle responding with ominous intent during his 94 from 78, a grand total of 28 sixes were struck in the course of the two innings – the most ever scored in an international match in England. That’s entertainment, as Gloucestershire’s marketing men would amply agree.
And yet, had it not been for a less prominently celebrated performance, England’s eventual 124-run win would have been significantly less comfortable, and perhaps even in doubt altogether. Instead, once the dust had settled on a pulsating afternoon’s strokeplay, there were Liam Plunkett’s figures standing out from the carnage – a career-best haul of 5 for 52 in 8.1 match-sealing overs.
It was, as Plunkett readily agreed, something of a killjoy’s performance. This is, after all, a player who has been forging an invaluable niche in England’s one-day plans in recent seasons – that of the mid-innings aggressor, the man whose extra oomph can force a mistake out of even the most well-set batsman, or demand that they shelve some of their intent in a bid to keep their powder dry for the slog overs.
And that he did to impressive effect in the course of a run-laden contest. After entering the attack in the tenth over, his first two wickets were classic heavy-ball dismissals, as first Shai Hope and then – controversially – Marlon Samuels were drawn into drives and beaten by extra bounce outside off stump. Then, when he returned in the 34th over, Plunkett’s second-ball bouncer lured Jason Mohammed into a top-edged slap to square leg, before Devendra Bishoo and Jason Holder completed his haul with the contest effectively settled.
“Everyone wants to see sixes and fours, so you try to come in in that middle period, and close a team down,” Plunkett said. “That’s why I do like it, because you feel as though you can run the game in that period. I love to be the bad guy for the crowd, it means I’m not getting hit out of the park.”
He’s clearly revelling in that villainous role. Plunkett’s Bristol haul propelled him into elite company among England’s one-day cricketers – with two matches remaining of the 2017 season, he has become the joint third-most prolific wicket-taker in a home ODI summer, with 20 scalps – alongside his regular middle-overs partner, Adil Rashid, who himself picked off three wickets to hasten West Indies’ demise in Sunday’s contest.
“If we can squeeze them in that middle period, it’s invaluable,” said Plunkett. “That’s what me and Rash have done in the last year or two, because people are getting set and looking to knock it around a bit, and not take as many risks. So if you can get a couple of big wickets there, it gets the tail in earlier and hopefully limits the damage at the back end. So I do relish it, trying to take a few wickets, and [at Bristol] I did that.”
Plunkett didn’t have everything his own way during his afternoon’s work. In fact, he suffered the indignity of being pounded for the biggest six of the match: his second ball to Gayle was swiped clean out of the ground over midwicket. But he took stock and adjusted his approach accordingly – aided, he said, by the prep he’d been able to do thanks to dressing-room footage of Gayle’s previous performances.
“The two bouncers I bowled to him, he flapped at to get out of the way, but the ball he hit for six was chest high, which obviously isn’t a good delivery,” Plunkett said. “I still backed myself to go at his head or mix the pace up, but you’ve got to stick to your plans. The stuff that’s in the dressing room gives you reminders before you go out, but if you don’t bowl well, it’s still your fault. There’s no-one else to blame but yourself.”
After a washout in Nottingham, England have now secured an unassailable 2-0 series lead in the five-match series, and Plunkett has few doubts about his team’s ability to wrap up the rubber in Wednesday’s fourth ODI at The Oval. His side, he believes, are simply better than West Indies, the No.9-ranked ODI side, who must now go through the ICC’s qualification tournament if they want to secure one of the two remaining places at the 2019 World Cup.
“We feel as though, if we can get an early wicket, we can get on top of them,” he said. “We feel like we do back ourselves, we’re a good team. Obviously you can never take it for granted, but if you can get one [wicket], you can squeeze them because they’re a team that likes boundaries and play out dot balls. We feel we are a better team because we hit boundaries but also run the ones and twos.”
That said, the Gayle factor can never be entirely discounted. After all, who needs ones and twos when you can deal exclusively in fours and sixes?
“He played nicely, didn’t he?” said Plunkett. “We know he’s dangerous. You look at the stats he’s got, even his bowling – he’s got 160 wickets or something – so he’s a great cricketer, isn’t he? We’ve got a method though, we have to try and squeeze him, although if you miss, he’ll hit it miles. You need to shut him down and try to get him to run the singles he doesn’t want to run – because a couple of run-outs have saved us as well.”
Perhaps coincidentally, the Bristol ODI was England’s last international fixture before the announcement of England’s Ashes squad – and while the days have long since passed of players earning themselves winter-tour places on the strength of an outstanding performance in the season-ending NatWest Trophy final (for instance, Ashley Cowan in 1997), the circumstances of this late-September series are not entirely dissimilar.
Thus, in the wake of the stress fracture that has scuppered the hopes of Middlesex’s Toby Roland-Jones, could there yet be a vacancy for a tall deck-hitting seamer with the stamina and experience to give Australia’s batsmen the hurry-up on flat pitches?
Plunkett, understandably, is refusing to get his hopes up. After all, he hasn’t played a Test match for England since 2014 while, through a combination of injury and England call-ups, he has played just two first-class matches for Yorkshire this season, albeit that included a hard-earned four-wicket haul against Somerset at Scarborough.
“I’ve not played that much so, I guess, there’s nothing to go by,” he said. “I guess they know what they’re going to get with me, I’ve been around for plenty of time, so if I got the go-ahead, happy days. But I can’t see it happening.
“Obviously I’d love to go in the Ashes squad, but I know it’s far for me. I’ve done well in white-ball cricket and I’ve been successful in that, so maybe they think me as a white-ball bowler. But I am happy where I’m at and I feel good in the one-day team right now.”