The great games don’t necessarily tell you they’re great at first.
Two-thirds of the way through the tied World Cup semi-final of 1999, South Africa are cruising to Australia’s sub-par target. At Eden Park in 2015, New Zealand are doing the same. Ditto the West Indies in the 1996 semi. At the MCG in 2010, Sri Lanka are on their way to a routine flogging before 131 for the ninth wicket.
The endings don’t change the value of what has come before. They just put everything that has come before into context, into focus, and into folklore.
At the halfway mark the 2019 World Cup final looks pretty humdrum. No standout batting in a mid-range score. Bowling that was steady and effective on a surface made for cutters. A display that has been competent rather than thrilling.
A couple of hours later it has become perhaps the greatest one-day match ever seen. Certainly the most dramatic, when you combine the madcap nature of the closing stages with the unmatchable height of the stakes, multiplied by the absurdity of ending with the scores level.
There have been plenty of matches that have swung one way and then the other, but not with every possible type of twist, every conceivable variety of turn, every species of surprise and variation through the final overs. How many ways can one score a six in cricket? We’ve just seen the catalogue.
That first-innings score of 241 seems appropriate. Middling, hard-working, and surely not enough to challenge a side with more stars and more support and a giant pile more money. A score that’s mediocre, in the literal sense rather than the pejorative it has come to imply.
Appropriate because New Zealand are… just not that good at cricket. I mean, they’re better at cricket than normal humans, and would belt seven shades of shinola out of almost anyone. But among international teams they’re limited. They’ve battled through the World Cup and have kept falling just on the right side of the result.
For a long time, New Zealand teams have had a pattern. One or two world-class players, with some shifting into and then out of that status. A couple of players a level down. Perhaps one flaky talent, then a series of role-players to fill the gaps, with usually several all-rounders of diminishing proficiency in one discipline or the other. Finally, a focus on fielding to make up some ground.
This time they have Kane Williamson, as good a batsman as the best who’ve walked the earth, with stats less bulky only because he’s invited to play less often. On mean, rather than volume, he’s up there every time. And they have Trent Boult, the left-arm swinger who can pilot the ball via remote control.
Being the second-most popular sport in the 127th-most populous nation would make it hard to imagine that you’re a celebrity and act like a dickhead accordingly.
Next tier is Lockie Ferguson, early in his international career but bowling pure heat for 21 wickets in the tournament, and Ross Taylor, with his decades in the game and 20 hundreds in the format, struggling with form but finding a way to grind out runs.
The role-players: Matt Henry, with barely a wicket through the group stage but huge ones in the knockouts; Henry Nicholls, top-scoring with 55 as a makeshift opener after a couple of failures; Tom Latham, scuffing a vital 47 after scarcely a run in the tournament.
The all-rounders: Jimmy Neesham, Colin de Grandhomme, Mitchell Santner, the kind of guys who can hit a six, can make a 30, can take a wicket, can hold a catch, but probably won’t do all those in one game, and can’t be relied on for as much output as the number six or seven or eight in another team.
Collectively, they have what so many New Zealand teams have had.
Cohesion, where everyone puts in equally and persistently across a match.
Camaraderie, where they know they’re outnumbered and outgunned but pull together to face it.
And humility, where players choose spadework over the spotlight. Being the second-most popular sport in the 127th-most populous nation would make it hard to imagine that you’re a celebrity and act like a dickhead accordingly.
And so they compete as a collective, even when the component parts may not match those in the teams they’re up against.
There’s a type of player you’ll know. Towering height and muscle to spare, hits the ball a mile, those big lugs who runs into bowl like a vision of terror before delivering a ball slowly enough to jog down beside it and give it encouragement. Guys like Carlos Brathwaite, Tom Moody, Colin de Grandhomme.
In this game, de Grandhomme’s role as a booming striker peters out into 16 runs from 28 balls, unable to lay bat on short balls fast or slow.
But then he wobbles down a set of seamers with the ball. England’s barometer Jason Roy is already out. Jonny Bairstow nearly hits Colin to mid-off, then hits a catch back to the bowler. It’s dropped, and you could argue that it costs 18 more Bairstow runs. But it also makes the batsmen so nervous that they barely play another shot.
Ten overs for 25 is what de Grandhomme sends down on the spin. He nibbles. He bowls cutters. He stays back of a length on the slow surface, giving nothing to hit straight. He concedes one boundary all day.
And he picks up Joe Root, the lynchpin, playing a big drive to nick a swinging ball. England’s most fluent finder of gaps has astonishingly made seven from 30 balls.
With the run rate dropping like a diabetic’s blood sugar, England go into insulin shock.
Bairstow tries to invent a scoring shot off Ferguson and plays onto his stumps.
Eoin Morgan, his portrait drawn as the cool and calm and collected captain who has modelled the team in his steely image, faces 22 balls for nine runs. Desperate, he goes after Neesham’s very first ball – short, wide, slapped to point where Ferguson takes a truly ridiculous catch diving forward on the run.
Starting with a cruisy chase of 242, at not even five per over, England now need 156 runs from 161 balls, on a tough pitch, against fired-up opponents, with their top four players gone. The score is 4 for 86.
The situation seems to fit England’s history. A rich history of botching one-day cricket in so many ways. Failing to beat a sparse handful of teams in the first three World Cups on home soil. The 1987 final thrown away with one reverse sweep. The 1992 final within easy grasp only for Wasim Akram to snatch it.
The early exits in 1999 at home, 2003 in Africa, 2007 in the Caribbean, gone at the group stage. Losing to Ireland in 2011 before being kicked from the quarters without taking one Sri Lankan wicket. Knocked out before the knockouts by Bangladesh in 2015.
Then, as per the story they’ve told and retold, they reset their plans, resolved to play fearless cricket, picked and backed the personnel to do it, and surged to the top of the world rankings with a predilection for taking the game on. They were the New England, those who had broken with the past and left all the bad old days behind.
And now here they were, unable to find a run, surrendering wickets, fumbling a trophy there for the taking. Here they were squandering another home World Cup, and New England was just a place where Stephen King lives.
One link between New Zealand and England was Ben Stokes.
Born and raised in Christchurch, moving to England aged 12. Very much part of the modern resurgence: wickets in the 2015 Ashes, runs that year against New Zealand in games that confirmed England’s bright new approach, a whirlwind double ton in South Africa, bowler of the ransacked final over when the West Indies took the World T20 final.
Plenty of cricket stories, but off-field stories too.
Some people might reasonably conclude that Stokes had not avoided dickheadedness quite as effectively as New Zealand’s players. His prominent recent history included missing an Ashes tour after being filmed punching a fellow drunkard in the head about 15 times in the street, then convincing a jury that this constituted self-defence.
There is a tendency after someone beats a court charge for supporters to portray them as pure and wronged. As though the most glowing recommendation one can conceive for a fellow human being is ‘Has not on this occasion committed a jailable crime’.
Stokes became the Joe Root that you have when you’ve already had your Joe Root
Not guilty doesn’t mean not awful, and it doesn’t require a court to decide whether doing the old Bart Simpson windmill arms into a stranger’s face is Not Entirely Cool, whatever the context.
Since then, Stokes had done his best to convey contrition while his public did the age-old work of separating art from artist. His batting changed, the free-wheeler acting out repentance by responsibility. He became the Joe Root that you have when you’ve already had your Joe Root, providing stability for others to hit around. It was the cricket version of kneeling in front of the congregation, mumbling the rosary.
But through this World Cup, Stokes kept having to do both jobs.
Against Sri Lanka he was the only one to hold his head, batting long then hitting out for 82 runs, stranded as his last partner fell. A similar day against Australia, 89 as he juggled defence with charging fast bowlers to loft over cover, before getting the ball of the tournament from Mitchell Starc.
He played the anvil and the hammer in the absence of teammates, but neither time did England win.
The final sees the same routine. Stokes at the crease with the top order gone and half the innings to go. Stokes inheriting a run rate deficit while being denied a situation to make it better. Stokes trying to bat long and hope.
The other part of the hope is Jos Buttler. The batsman who can think of shots that no one has imagined, then use them to hit balls where no one would have thought they would go. With Stokes extending his overdraft of deliveries faced, Buttler tries to make repayments with a run-a-ball fifty.
Needing 72 from the last ten overs, they have already left too much to do. What would be fine on a flat track is far more difficult here. It only gets worse through the next four, the required rate distending to nearly nine. It’s certain a wicket will fall trying to rein it in. In truth, Stokes has batted his team into a hole. He has 50 from 81.
After the inevitable, with Buttler caught in the deep, they need 46 from 30 balls. Panicky tailenders will surely hit catches. Stokes shouldn’t wear all the blame; Root has played a World Cup-losing knock, sucking up five overs with barely a run. Morgan too, the man who belted 17 sixes in an afternoon against Afghanistan, paralysed against New Zealand’s seam.
Chris Woakes fulfils the prophecy, holing out with the equal aim of hitting a boundary or getting Stokes on strike. Liam Plunkett makes the most important ten runs of his life, nailing one gorgeous whip through midwicket to breathe life back into things. When he’s out they still need 22 from nine balls, and panic will take hold.
Stokes is always going to be caught on the boundary. He has to go for it at some stage. The northwestern corner is long and leg side for the left-hander. He tries it from Neesham, with Boult settling just as he did to end Carlos Brathwaite’s charge to victory with the West Indies.
Boult is confident, cool, calm. He’s a good fielder. He doesn’t drop much. Perhaps he’s too calm. He knows his right foot is very near the boundary rope. So he plants that foot just inside, takes the catch, looks down over his right shoulder to make sure there’s enough space… and puts his left foot back.
Impulse, instinct. Throws the ball to Martin Guptill but has already stepped on the rope. Guptill signals six runs back to the umpire.
Stokes is all adrenaline now. Three wickets in hand, 16 runs to get from eight balls. He can’t hit the next properly but tries to run two, so desperate to get back that he’s not thinking. Jofra Archer keeps a clear head and turns Stokes around in time. That contribution matters more than anything. With one ball left in the over Archer effectively has a free hit. Get out and it doesn’t matter. Get six and close the gap. He swings. Clunk. Two wickets in hand.
Fifteen from six balls then. Stokes knows it’s down to him, not Adil Rashid at the far end. Turns down the single first ball. Hits the field second ball. Fifteen off four, and New Zealand will win this. He can’t find enough boundaries off Trent Boult.
Bang. Given the treatment over midwicket. Guptill is there, hoping, and it’s not far over his head. Not far. But six far.
Nine runs from three balls. The dipping full toss, hard to hit sometimes. Two runs only, hustling. Guptill’s throw looks to put pressure at the striker’s end. It does. Too much.
Hitting the diving Stokes, not on the flesh of his shoulder or leg, not the absorbent material of his pads or the brittleness of his helmet, but right off the middle of his bat.
Stokes is face down in the dirt as the ball flies away. He comes up with palms raised to advertise his lack of intention. But that doesn’t matter as the ball hits the rope. Three sixes in seven balls, even though only one left the arena.
Suddenly the mood has shifted. England’s despair has become England’s excitement. Surely they should win from here. Three from two needed.
Boult nails the yorker, Stokes drives it straight, and Rashid is always coming for the second run. He knows they won’t make it, he knows he’ll be run out, but he knows there is a wicket in hand and that Stokes will get back to the striker’s end.
Two from the last ball. The same again. This time it’s Mark Wood on the sacrifice play, hoping that Boult will fumble at the stumps, or the throw will go astray. It doesn’t. All of this frenetic running, the diving, the jumping and squeaking and panicking, has ended level.
England have avoided a loss that looked inevitable. They will go on to tie the Super Over and win on countback of boundaries, but the 100th over of the match will remain their miracle.
On the alternate timeline, where normal things play out, Stokes is caught on the boundary in the 49th. The target is too distant for the tail. Root is savaged for the choke of his career. Morgan has talked right and walked wrong. England are pilloried for being prisoners of the past, for falling to pieces once again when the moment was here.
On the alternate timeline, England are pilloried for being prisoners of the past, for falling to pieces once again when the moment was here.
On our timeline, with moments of fortune between moments of skill, they will meet only praise. Claims about endemic structural and cultural problems go unmade. The errors are washed away in a baptism of champagne. England’s bottom three have been dismissed for zero runs between them from one ball faced, but each played a vital part in dragging their team level. You take the risk, you earn the reward.
There will be millions of words on key moments and decisions. Mitchell Santner ducking a bouncer from the last ball of New Zealand’s innings and failing to run a bye. Guptill losing a gamble on an LBW review for himself, which later cost Taylor who can’t review a bad call. And of course the overthrows, which the umpires score as six when it should have been five, because the batsmen hadn’t crossed before the throw was released. Stokes off strike for the last two balls.
But in the end, all the reconstructions are worthless. If Santner takes an extra run, the whole second innings is different. If Stokes needs three to win off the last ball instead of two, he plays it differently. If Guptill hasn’t already gambled by telling Nicholls to review, New Zealand would have lost their eventual top scorer cheaply.
If the overthrows are umpired correctly, and England need four from two balls with Rashid on strike, he’s hit plenty of fours in his life, and has two chances to do it.
Maybe he scores a two, and is back on strike with one needed for a tie and Stokes running kamikaze. Or he scores one, and Stokes is on strike needing three to win, two to tie, finding the rope or a gap or being bowled, the whole match ending in a different blaze of glory or a different tie and a different Super Over.
Every permutation spins off a thousand slight variants of the possible future, until they solidify into the one that actually happened.
In this timeline, a heel strikes a rope. A throw strikes a bat. A bat bunts a single. And it’s a tie.
You don’t tie games of cricket. In Test matches, twice, each prominent in the gallery of famed results. Before this match, 39 tied one-dayers out of 4191. A chance of one in 107, meaning a tied final is due every 430 years.
The best place to watch at Lord’s is from an upper level at the Nursery end. Up against the railing, you’re almost suspended over the crowd. When a match takes off the whole place comes alive. A many-headed animal rumbles and thrums and seethes.
As the asking rate climbs through those final overs, each dot ball brings a fraction of cheers and a majority sound of dismay. Each single brings groans of tension. When the boundaries come, rare and then increasing in frequency, the sound booms, a physical being rolling up the grandstands like surf in reverse.
By those last nine balls the place is in delirium. No one knows how to process the two freak sixes, one after another. The conventional six gets a response that probably makes people at St John’s Wood tube station look up from their phones.
At the ground, no one is looking anywhere else. They are fretting and strutting and yelping, biting their hands or covering their faces. The English nearby sound like they’re in genuine pain. I can’t sit still with the excitement and pace up and down a walkway, stopping for each ball, then walking faster until a steward warns me about the risk of tipping over a rail.
When it’s level, and a Super Over must be played, people are beside themselves. They can’t take any more of this, can they? But they have to. There’s nothing else to do.
Trent Boult is tired. He has already had the game won, then lost it, then saved it, all in the space of an over. But he saddles up to go again. It’s easy to say in retrospect that Ferguson should have. But Boult is the man, the go-to guy. And even the best can miss their mark.
Stokes is sent back out; he left the car running. Buttler goes with him. A couple of boundaries, a sliced three. England have 15. New Zealand aren’t a power-hitting team. Surely it’s enough.
Neesham is the first surprise walking out for New Zealand. But he shows why he’s there, booming the best shot of the day off his pads and almost into the analogue scoreboard on the southeast side. New Zealand are going to win again. Surely.
Guptill is the other surprise, given he’s barely hit a ball out of the middle in the tournament. But he’s the fastest in the team, and he’s Bruce Springsteen, born to run. He gets back for two runs: once, twice, a third time. A wide as well. Now they’re the team needing three off two.
The bowler is Jofra Archer. All of about ten weeks into his international career. Young. Quick. Easy. The man who England changed the qualification guidelines for. Win the World Cup for us. No pressure champ.
He knows he’s on the brink of losing it instead. He has bowled gorgeously throughout. Fast, short, slower balls, seam, swing. He goes short this time. Neesham has been driving and doesn’t get the length. Can only edge it into his body and down at his feet.
Guptill is running for everything, so he’s already most of the way down. If they’d had their time again, maybe Neesham was the best bet to keep strike. But that’s not how this timeline works out.
Richie Benaud said never to use the word “tragic” about sport, but surely it can handle the flawed Grecian hero sense.
So comes the final act of the sporting tragedy of Martin Guptill. Richie Benaud said never to use the word “tragic” about sport, but surely it can handle the flawed Grecian hero sense.
Remember that part about a flaky talent? Guptill is better than that description, but never quite escapes it. An imposing one-day record, but heftier against a few weaker teams before thinning. A career that saw him top the World Cup for runs in 2015, then bottom out four years later.
Coming into the final on fumes, still picked on the faint hope he would find a spark, and the lack of alternatives with the other opener already ditched.
Guptill, burning the team’s only DRS review early on the player with the worst form. Guptill, standing and watching and waiting for the relay throw while Boult stomps the rope. Guptill, throwing back to the keeper as he has done a thousand times before seeing the deflection.
Guptill, with two runs to win a World Cup, dragging a shot to the leg side along the ground. Hitting it too well, if anything, giving Roy time to reach it off the rope. Guptill turning for two but not having the headstart as the non-striker this time.
Roy, after fumbling the second time they ran two. After throwing to the wrong end the third time they ran two. But on this final attempt, Buttler taking the stumps and running, running, setting off immediately, no need for umpires or reviews or decisions, knowing more firmly than anyone in this ground which way that match has fallen, and communicating that instantly as he tears his gloves from his hands and flings them aside like fallen birds, running with no sense of destination because his body can’t contain his feelings, running to be caught and swamped by his teammates who just want to be near it.
All running except for one: Archer, flat in pale blue on the green turf, thumping the ground in who knows what feeling, having this tiny moment alone his teammates rush over to engulf him.
It is hard to know what to make of this result. As time passes it will probably only get harder. People will withdraw to their preconceived camps.
It will always be true that New Zealand never lost the World Cup final. “Match tied,” say the scorecards. Ah, but who will tie the tiebreakers? New Zealand, who tied that too.
The expedient of a boundary countback seems daft, given that cricket’s two aims are runs and wickets, but the team with more wickets didn’t win. It also seems daft that two ties are not enough to share a trophy. But the daft rule was in place before the tournament, and no one was bothered then. That’ll teach us to read the fine print.
There were the irresistible moments: England winning under an Irish captain while the traditionalists who fetishise this sport bluster against Europe. This glory coming days before Ireland would flatten England on the opening day of a Test at the same ground. England’s stars having backgrounds from Barbados and Pakistan while self-appointed patriots rail against migrants.
And for some in England, it meant more than I could have imagined. The number of friends and strangers that I met that Sunday who were stunned, speechless, overcome. Some popping corks and jabbering, more sitting in silence. One colleague standing by the press box window, staring over the ground into space for the best part of an hour, unable to process what he had seen.
It was explained as the culmination of a lifetime of waiting. Of the resignation of never being good enough. It was the angst and frustration and embarrassment melting away, having seen a team they were proud of play the most insane, intense, irresistible match imaginable.
And for New Zealand, despite the hurt of missing out, hopefully coming to find some pride in having been part of that match, one that will be spoken of for as long as we speak of cricket.
“The best ever,” people will say, and will repeat it until it becomes cliché.
But no matter. There’s a very good chance that it’s true.