In an eerie autumn darkness last night, England contrived to lose and West Indies conspired to win a gripping contest to decide the Champions Trophy. It took a record-breaking and barely credible ninth-wicket partnership to do it, and gave this mini-World Cup a final to tingle the spine as well as test the eyes.
The sparkling heroes of the gloomy event were the Barbadian pair of Courtney Browne and Ian Bradshaw, who shared one of cricket's more improbable stands of 71 from 92 balls. They came together in the 34th over when the match was all but lost and achieved the victory with seven balls to spare by taking 12 from the penultimate over.
The triumph - and in such circumstances - was precisely what Caribbean cricket needed, can hardly have dared hope for and never have expected. For long enough their players have been pushed from pillar to post in most parts of the world. But there has always been more than a suspicion that Brian Lara's side possess richly talented cricketers.
Their Test side still have a long way to go to recover lost ground, but the one-day squad have been evolving along the right lines for a year or so, with one eye on today, two eyes on the World Cup on home turf in 2007. This victory in the junior version will multiply their resolve.
Defeat for England, while ultimately disappointing, will hardly terminate their progress. It was known that they still had some way to go before becoming a cohesive one-day unit; they had lost to West Indies earlier in the summer, and there was no disgrace in doing so again. But they would have expected to close down the match yesterday. Marcus Trescothick's eighth one-day hundred had dragged them to a serviceable total which swiftly began to look more than adequate when Andrew Flintoff and Stephen Harmison got to work with the ball. Michael Vaughan's men will be aggrieved that they could not finish off the match, and rightly so.
In truth, they were a bowler short, with Darren Gough in sorry form and perhaps taking part in his final match for England. Vaughan used up his strike bowlers in a bid to finish off West Indies, and when that failed he had to turn elsewhere.
Before the day began, he would not have been expecting Alex Wharf, in his seventh match, to bowl the 49th over. Ashley Giles, who has provided many of the abiding images of the season, was not called upon because Vaughan thought it was a seamers' pitch. It was the wrong call, but Vaughan was operating in the heat of battle (even though it was bitterly cold) and will have learned from this. So will his team.
Assessments of what constituted a reasonable score on the surface kept varying, as if it was a hectic morning on the stock market. In some quarters, 265 was deemed necessary to be trading at a profit but, the next second, 200 was considered fair value. It put the occupation of pitch- reading once more in a category close to astrology.
England, put in, might have been uncertain themselves about what would be competitive, but as they kept losing wickets the target score was probably being continually reduced. Since West Indies have earned a reputation (obviously justified) for hunting down almost any target - nine of their last 11 wins had come batting second - this must have been acutely worrying.
Trescothick ensured that England did not capitulate. He was never at his most tellingly belligerent, but he recognised that self-preservation was in the team's best interests. Once, when he was on only three, the bounce of a ball from Corey Collymore took him by surprise, struck a leading edge and flew fortunately between fielders. It was an early indication that the pitch might veer towards the capricious, and the estimated totals came down accordingly. England lost their top-order wickets at 12, 43, 84, 93 and 123, which shows that they never managed to sustain a partnership for long enough. They were a tad careless.
The most crucial wicket was Andrew Flintoff's, and it took a stunning catch by Lara, who stretched low and sharply to his left at short midwicket. The joy on Lara's face reflected the value of what he had pulled off. It took Giles to bring a semblance of control. He was precisely the foil Trescothick wanted, and indeed outscored him by sensible batting. He did not forget that playing straight down the pitch rather than trying to seek out murky corners with a horizontal bat was a ploy designed to bring regular benefit.
Trescothick's hundred contained 13 fours in its 122 balls, and his end hastened that of the innings, again carelessly.
It was raining and it was gloomy when West Indies began their reply. It was also greasy underfoot, but that disadvantage applied to both sides. West Indies were given a perfect start by Gough's faulty radar. He bowled three wides in his first over and was intent on keeping Geraint Jones honest by bowling them on both sides of the wicket.
The wet ball and the cold seeping into a 33-year-old fast bowler's joints may have had something to do with it, but it was hard not to suspect that this was the warrior's valedictory performance. After four overs for 23 runs he was taken off, and when he was brought back he went for 13 and was immediately sent into the country again. It has been an auspicious and determined career. He owes England nothing, but a wicket yesterday would have been welcome.
Harmison and Flintoff made what seemed crucial incisions, the latter removing the dangerous Ramnaresh Sarwan and Lara. Sarwan, man of the tournament for previous exploits, went to Flintoff's first ball, outstandingly caught by Andrew Strauss wide to his right at second slip. It was a stupendous effort, enhanced by the significance of the occasion and the fact that Strauss was operating with his weaker hand.
There looked to be too much to do for West Indies thereafter, and England's occasional seamers were called on. Shivnarine Chanderpaul personified patience in accumulating 48, but when he was out it seemed just a matter of time. Yet Bradshaw, man of the match in his 16th game, and Browne, recalled for this tournament, stuck it out. They countered everything England hurled at them. Whether the competition deserved it is an open question, but it ended up as a tremendous match. West Indies were worthy victors.Reuse content