What a debacle the Black Caps tour of Australia was. First, let’s look back at the three units of cricket.
Martin Guptill dives, Jos Buttler stays clutch and I drop back to my seat. Head in hands, I listen to the monkey-freeing roar that rings around Lord’s.
The tragedy is dam-breaking and with the ground victory-pumping to Tom Hark, I weep uncontrollably.
Consoling hands, quickly find my back. Hugs of English and Indians with who I’ve shared the most viciously brilliant day. I hear whispers of “chin up” and “you’ve always got the rugby”. The tears aren’t stemmed, but the camaraderie provides reason to reassess the tragedy.
The tragedists were far from the rockstars of ancient Greece. Like a rabble of eccentric fifth graders they revelled on the edges, grating on the more precise Plato. In their wisdom, tragedy was never an external misfortune, bestowed by the gods, but something that required a degree of complicity. We all collude with our fate.
This is not a nod to Trent Boult’s left spike or the ridge of Ben Stokes’ bat, but rather the faustian pact we’ve all signed as cricket fans. No other sport embraces the ambiguity of life’s whimsical disposition in the same way.
A plodding celebration of angsty banality, cricket flexes and twists time. Stretching our emotions with promises of exhilarating absurdity, moments that we’re aware rarely arrive.
And so it began. Lord’s hushed in polite etiquette. God Defend New Zealand inoffensively billowing across the ground. Spotting a dense bed of grey cloud hanging above the Pavilion, I feel a pang of familiarity, as memory and moment intertwine.
I’m munching on Milo, swinging wildly at a yellow plastic ball as it skids across the freshly cut turf of Hagley Park. A weighty nugget of lived joy re-discovered after years of neglected maturity.
The seconds pass like daggers, as Marty Guptill takes guard. A dread laden waistcoat, replacing the merino jumper of sentimentally. With the past pushing into view, I shovel my elbows into my knees and watch Woakes and Jofra Archer take a thankfully shorter length than Mitch Starc four years earlier.
A six can do strange things to the mind, but when Guptill crunches a four next ball, lunacy ensues and sure enough I’m focusing on 234 not out. Thoughts of 400+ follow, but are immediately shot down by my inner-monologue. ‘England would probably chase it down anyway.’
The bipolar rationalisation has begun and Nicholls astute review does nothing to discourage it. Not to be outdone, Guptill is immediately Watsoned and I’m plumbed back to the hauntingly mediocre 183 in ‘15.
Guptill gives way to the wicket prized by all of England. King Kane walks to the square innocuously and waits for Chris Woakes, his Gray Nicholls a whirling dervish. The ball arrives and leaning forward with the softest of hands, his bat seems to disappear, as it beats edge.
Throat gulping dread is back, but is quickly pacified by gently nurdled accumulation. A calm beguiles the stadium and umpire Kumar Dharmasena is so zen, he chooses to ignore a reality that threatens the equilibrium. Technology has no time for such sentiment and it’s snicko’s jagged spike that registers large on Lord’s richter.
Life post Kane is one of perpetual re-construction and Taylor and Nichols go about the rebuild. I go from a state of mindfulness, to trading time with the cricket gods in bulks of ten overs. With wickets as hostages, I agree to give them Nicholls, after 35 overs.
Seems more than reasonable, but England aren’t listening and we lose wickets inopportunely. Henry Nicholls chops on, Marais Erasmus’ pudgy finger tells Ross Taylor to go and take it up with his openers – and Jimmy Neesham miscues to mid on.
Still the 40-over mark is reached and a par score is in sight. ODI lore dictates that the angst of the early overs will dissipate into some stress-free slogging. However, England again play spoiler and bowl with frustrating excellence.
Tom Latham plays well, but is an extra Weet-Bix away from a six that would’ve proved useful come 7.03pm. Colin De Grondhomme spends more time getting hit. 8/241, it feels skinny, defendable but skinny.
The break provides breathing space and my mood shifts. As a spectator, a batting innings is excruciating viewing. You exist on the same isolated island as the batsmen, acutely aware of the threat posed by each ball.
Fielding is different, those same sensations become communal and morph into bouts of chatty optimism. A coping mechanism, to distract from thoughts of a 0/100 start and as Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow stride to the crease, this is an outcome that seems more foregone than threatening.
But we have Boult and he glides in from the Pavilion end, pinning Roy dead. Unfortunately Erasmus, is also in rigor mortis and remains unmoved.
We review, we have to and I yelp at the sight of the ball hitting just below knee roll. “Looks leg-side,” says my new friend from Mumbai.
Blind faith ignores him and the initial ball tracker looks good, shaping perfectly from off and middle. Going past impact it hoops some more and crashes into leg stump. One red, two reds and cruelly a yellow. Roy’s out, but not by enough.
Filthy resignation hits immediately and Roy prances and crunches, plays and misses, his way to a run a ball start. Matt Henry though, is made of sterner stuff and nibbling on a perfect length, he finally kisses an edge. Roy is gone. The inevitable is put on hold.
Enter Colin de Grandhomme with his gamut of non-combative dibbly dobblers that spiral Lord’s and Joe Root into a state of palliative care. CDG and Tom Latham combine to finally pull Joe Root’s cord and with Bairstow playing on, you can sense Kiwis starting to dabble with a bubbling sense of belief.
Risking a teeth full of leather, Lockie Ferguson then stunningly turns it into a geyser. For the first time ever New Zealand are World Cup favourites.
I can’t resist and the chatty optimism returns, while Buttler and Stokes take their turn to re-build. A son of Christchurch, it’s something Stokes should know all about, but it’s Buttler who catches the eye. Like Ravi Jadeja before him, it looks like he’s batting on another pitch.
The 34th over is etched into memory. Three consecutive twos from Stokes and two singles see Lord’s rediscover its voice. “C’mon England” rings around the ground and “Just the over we needed” comes from behind me. One over, eight runs, no boundaries and just like that, victory is replaced with the certainty of a six wicket loss.
The sadists hour beckons with 72 needed off 60 and six in hand. Buttler and Stokes continue on their merry way, but the Black Caps give them nothing. Then finally that moment, the one I’d bartered for, but never believed would come.
Ferguson induces a Buttler slice and the ball disappears behind the restricted view of the Edrich stand. The Kiwi contingent goes up, Lord’s immediately quietens. Buttler’s out and the invisible catch restores faith.
It’s Woakes turn, but he skies and byes. Liam Plunkett then pillages a four, before perishing in the 49th. Time is on overdrive, yet so many balls seem left and then there’s Stokes. He remains, on-strike and capable.
Immediately, he heaves Jimmy Neesham to long on. Transfixed, 30,000 follow its trajectory. It looks short, I pray it’s short. It is short, but savagely also long enough, as velocity carries Boult onto the rope. A six is signalled and my sense of security is crushed. Neesham then skittles Jofra Archer, almost as an afterthought and it’s 15 off last.
“I’m worried about Boult,” says my Mumbai mate. I smile nervously, calling on logic and history to block out his observation. Two balls, two dots. One more and the cup is surely ours. I let a smile build and feel complicit when Stokes lands the next ball in the bay below. Everyone is standing and no-one is making any sense. Wide eyed disbelief seems to be the medium of communication.
Boult glides in again and goes full. Off the bat it looks like it could be four, but Guptill swoops. Stokes doesn’t miss his second chance and his outstretched GM accidentally sends Taylor on a forlorn chase.
I’m in the midst of a tanty. That can’t be four, the spirit of cricket won’t allow it, but deep down I know it’s futile. Real tragedies don’t bow to such transcendental myths. Behind me I hear confirmation. “That’s not a four…it’s actually six.”
The emotion drains from my body and I watch the last two balls with the detachment of a serial killer. Red raw, my gut tells me we won’t lose, but my head refutes…we’re definitely not going to win. Both prove right, as Boult ices both tail-enders. The feeling is one of prolonged inevitability. It’s England’s game now, a team built to super over.
A lad behind me asks how many wickets New Zealand have lost. I think it’s eight and he nods glumly. He’s clocked something that I have not. Although he needn’t worry, as Stokes and Buttler reappear, the ground announcer confirms an England win if still tied. Cordially, a round of good lucks are shared, as Boult once more stands at the top of his mark.
The first ball is sliced and hangs in the air just long enough to raise hopes, while carrying far enough for England to scamper three. With the ball thudding safely into the Lord’s outfield my resignation becomes terminal. I watch in a daze, as England craft 15 runs too many. The teams trade places and the wait is unbearable, even for a cricket fan acclimatised to drawn-out torture. I pray for it to be over, a quick and clean kill.
Archer starts with the almost perfect wide and then in ecstatic disbelief I watch Jimmy Neesham woosh him into the Tavern stand.
Seven off four, not only seems doable, but expected. It’s a respite of hope, but one I can’t bring myself to trust.
A two, followed by another and we’re back at a point of symmetry. Three needed off two and the same feeling persists. I still don’t think we’ll win, but I can’t see us losing.
A gusty slower ball from Archer brings a single and Guptill on strike. I picture the straight drive he murdered in the morning, a shot from another lifetime. Guiltily, I banish it from my mind.
Archer goes full and jams Guptill. He makes decent contact and it slides into the outfield. Gutill turns and the throw comes in. It looks to have dragged Buttler away from the stumps and belief is sparked, roaring loudly and cruelly. Guptil dives, but Buttler’s gone first. Lord’s stands, I slump and we’re back to where we started.
Trying to mop up the deluge of tears, I make my exit. Sheepishly offering hugs of thanks and congratulations, I stumble down to Mound Stand exit. Pausing at the threshold, I cop the full vista of victory. Lord’s is on fire in teasing celebration, a nation basking in my summer gloom.
Disorientated I head towards the north gate. I pass a dad, short with a stocky frame and matching hooped earrings. Standing with his son, he spots me and makes a beeline, grabbing me in a defibrillator like hug. My upper lip stiffens. Turning to leave, he pats me on the back and says It’s been great to have met you.”
I watch him rejoin his son in a state of comforted delirium. Regaining agency, I look up and reciprocate skywards.
“Cricket you sadistic bastard, it’s great to have met you.”