And so, from behind the curtain and out of the shadow, comes the final act.
For much of the English summer, the focus has been on the World Cup, just not the World Cup on English shores.
Instead, the attention has been on the England Women’s soccer team, a group of players who have inspired and transcended the sport in equal amounts.
Its run to the semifinals of the tournament broke all kinds of records, not least the broadcasting figures with 28.1 million people watching on UK television.
England’s defeat by the USA in the last four attracted the highest live TV audience of the year so far with 11.7 million.
The players have become household names. The likes of Ellen White, Lucy Bronze, Nikita Parris and Steph Houghton, have been on the front and back pages of the newspapers, their names bandied around in the pubs and bars, while radio phone-ins have been besieged by people who have been inspired by their achievements.
And yet, away from the limelight, another England team has been forging its very own path toward global domination.
England’s male cricketers will take to the field at Lord’s on Sunday to face New Zealand in its first Cricket World Cup final for 27 years.
It is a remarkable achievement for a side that four years ago was embarrassed and humiliated at the 2015 World Cup.
England has never won the tournament, though it has reached the final on three separate occasions, the last in 1992 when it was beaten by Pakistan.
Its semifinal victory over defending champion Australia was brutal and brilliant, placing it front and center of the news and sporting world, on the front and back pages of the newspapers and breathing new life in to the English summer.
Finally, after six weeks and 48 games, the country awoke to a competition that had been happening in its very own backyard. Finally, it left the sphere of cricket, and made the jump into the public consciousness.
Almost immediately it was announced the final would be shown on free-to-air television – the first time an England international will have been shown on UK terrestrial television in 14 years.
Since the end of the 2005 Ashes series, one of the most exciting and enduring contests between England and Australia, cricket has been shown on Sky TV in the UK.
For many English sports fans, the 2005 series remains one of the greatest examples of sporting rivalry. It was a series that stopped the country, a contest that inspired the next generation of cricket players and supporters, a seminal moment in the country’s sporting history.
That England team was paraded through the streets of London on an open-top bus with thousands lining up for a glimpse of the players who had toyed with their emotions during an emotional summer of sport.
Those players, the likes of Andrew Flintoff, Kevin Pietersen and Steve Harmison, have gone down in folklore. Michael Vaughan, the England captain in 2005, speaks for many when he says that series inspired a generation of children. It was a defining moment.
And here England stands again. On the brink of glory, of sporting immortality. Yet for many who are not familiar with cricket, the names of Jason Roy, one of the most explosive batsmen in world cricket, and Jofra Archer, a wonderfully talented bowler, may not be at all familiar.
For the most part, those not able to watch Sky or stay awake for the highlights on terrestrial television, have been watching clips online and listening to BBC Test Match Special’s radio broadcast, a staple of the English summer for cricket fans.
According to the International Cricket Council, the World Cup has reached a unique audience of 20 million people in the UK through Sky’s coverage and highlights shown on Channel 4.
Statistics provided by the ICC show that England’s win over Edgbaston was the most watched cricket match within the UK across any format since 2006. A unique audience of 3.45 million was reached on Sky Sports with the audience peaking at 1.8 million during India’s second innings run chase.
“We are absolutely delighted that the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup 2019 has become one of the most watched sporting events in the world across TV and digital platforms,” ICC chief executive Manu Sawhney said in a statement Friday.
“These quite extraordinary numbers demonstrate how viewership habits are changing and the smart way cricket has adapted to deliver what fans today expect.”
Nowhere is the way fans consume their media coverage more evident than in the ICC’s own statistics with cellphones, tablets, in-game highlights and YouTube all playing a key role in transporting the tournament to the world.
On Friday, the International Cricket Council announced it had recorded an “unprecedented” 2.6 billion video views across its digital and social platforms.
The official tournament social channels have added 12 million new followers in the past six weeks and attracted 386 million engagements.
The appetite for cricket online could not be clearer with the tournament’s official website having registered 65 million unique users worldwide, and has had more than 250 million page views during the past six weeks.
As of Friday, the highlights of England’s semifinal clash with Australia had almost 9 million views on the ICC’s official YouTube channel. The YouTube highlights from India’s win over Pakistan had attracted over 21 million.
Even the dead rubber game between Afghanistan and West Indies managed over six million views.
’Really important for cricket’
But though the digital statistics and broadcasting figures outside the UK are impressive, the clamor for the final to be shown free-to-air hints at a frustration.
After 27 years of waiting, can cricket afford to waste such a precious opportunity to influence the next generation? And on a day when the men’s final at Wimbledon and British Grand Prix are both freely available for sports fans to watch for free, can cricket just sit back behind the pay TV barrier? The answer, from both a current and former England captain, is no.
“It’s cool, it’s great that everyone gets the chance to see it,” Eoin Morgan, the current England captain told reporters after the semifinal win over Australia.
“The 2005 Ashes was the moment for me when cricket became cool. That whole summer it was on all the front and back pages, everywhere.
“I don’t think we will understand the impact until after the tournament when the guys go home. We will be recognized more than before.”
Alastair Cook, the former England captain, agreed. He said it was a “fantastic move” on the part of Sky to allow the final to be show free-to-air.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these players to play in a home World Cup and to have this opportunity to put it on free-to-air, so hopefully many more millions of people can watch it and hopefully see an England win. It can inspire the next generation,” Cook told BBC Radio 5 Live.
“If they win the World Cup, the first 50-over tournament England have ever won, it can only be a good thing for cricket.
“And then amazingly, a week-and-a-half later, we start an Ashes series so it could be a very, very special eight or nine weeks for English cricket.”
Cook, one of England’s most decorated players, is well placed to make such a call.
As England’s all-time leading run scorer in Test cricket, his name will surely remain in the record books for many decades to come.
But he, like so many of England’s most successful players, never came close to winning a World Cup.
Now, in front of an expectant country, with the game broadcast far and wide, England’s cricketers have the opportunity to inspire and transcend sport, just like the Lionesses did weeks ago.
For cricket, for the players, for England, the time is now. Another 27 years is a long time to wait.