England are world champions. Four little words that do the gravest of injustices to one of the greatest finishes ever seen at a game of cricket. In a way, only cricket could have produced a finish like this, one that blended unfathomable skill, unimaginable drama, outrageous fortune and a penchant for arcane rule-making.
As Jos Buttler broke the wicket at Pavilion End to bring the World Cup final to its conclusion, many in the ground had no idea why England were celebrating so wildly. Even fewer, you suspect, cared.
For England are world champions and frankly, everything else is details. The finer points of their Super Over victory at a sunny Lord’s, the names and the numbers, the wet brows and the blind luck and the cold, brutal dread, were washed away in the instant Buttler swept away the bails to leave New Zealand a run short of victory. Washed away in a torrent of tears and a deluge of relief: the culmination of 44 years of yearning, four years of planning, eight weeks of toil and eight hours of pure, humbling sport.
England are world champions; for the first time in men’s cricket. Other sports have had their moment in the sun. The women’s side scaled their own heroic peak on this same turf two years ago. Great teams and great moments, Ashes successes and world No 1 rankings have come and gone.
But not until Eoin Morgan held aloft that silver and gold trophy, shortly after 8pm on a glorious Sunday evening, has this country been able to claim genuine supremacy in the game it invented.
That they neither scored more runs nor took more wickets than their heroic opponents mattered not at all. A tied game led to a tied Super Over, at the end of which clause 13 of Appendix F of the International Cricket Council’s rules and regulations decreed that England were champions by dint of having scored more boundaries.
It’s useless trying to parse the sequence of events that led us to that point, to affix some sort of coherent narrative to a triumph that defied all rational explanation. Sport is silly, and sport is cruel, and at the end England are world champions.
It was cruellest of all, of course, on Kane Williamson’s magnificent New Zealanders, who on English soil and in English conditions came so close to jilting English cricket’s day of jubilee. A second consecutive set of runner’s-up medals was no sort of reward for a performance that was smart in all the right places, clinical in all the right places, and with four balls remaining appeared certain to claim the biggest prize of all.
Fifteen runs were required for victory at that point, and as Trent Boult galloped in to bowl to Ben Stokes, English hopes were vapours and blessings alone. A funereal feel had settled on Lord’s, a sense that for all New Zealand’s deserved tidings this was above all a pyre built on English failure, on English ambition, on English hubris. The England balcony was wreathed in glum looks; high in the pavilion, the MCC grandees looked down with the air of family members surveying an open casket.
But somehow Stokes hit the next ball for six, and the next ball for two, which became six after a fortuitous deflection off his sliding bat. New Zealanders the world over will relive those few seconds for many years hence: a misfortune entirely beyond comprehension, and one that ultimately separated them from glory.
As for England: did you think it would be easy? Did you allow yourself to get carried away? Perhaps you succumbed to this team’s easy charms, its thirst for dominance, its No 1 world ranking, its too-straightforward semi-final triumph. Perhaps you dared to hope, when New Zealand posted a modest 241-8 batting first, that this would be the triumph that didn’t drag through the wringer, that didn’t empty you of every last bead of sweat. Some hope.
It was an awful pitch, and in truth a fairly drab game until its conclusion. Not that this was any sort of comfort as Buttler and Ben Stokes painstakingly hauled England back into the game after a frightfully tepid start, their partnership of 110 forestalling defeat without ever quite escaping its spectre. First Buttler was caught on the boundary for 59. Then Chris Woakes. Then Liam Plunkett. Only Stokes stayed afloat, and as the balls leaked away even he appeared powerless to staunch the foaming black-and-white tide.
Where were you? Perhaps you were pacing your front room in a sort of sick agony. Perhaps you were perched uncomfortably in the front room of a pub, or following it nervously on your phone from the back row of a wedding. Perhaps you were entirely new to all this palaver, and earnestly wondering how grown adults could get quite so caught up in this silly little business of hitting a white ball around. In which case, welcome. It gets better than this – honestly – but not much more thrilling, and not a lot less silly, either.
For how else to explain to the uninitiated that eight hours of cricket can be decided on a technicality? Stokes and Buttler smashed 15 off England’s Super Over, which was a fine effort, or at least looked it until Jimmy Neesham smashed Jofra Archer’s second ball into the Mound Stand for six. Somehow, a young man playing his 14th one-day international delved into his reserves of nerve to defend seven runs off the last four balls: a two, a two, a single, and then – as Martin Guptill bunted the ball to mid-wicket and Jason Roy closed in on the ball and the batsmen turned and the throw arrowed towards Buttler’s gloves – a single. Just a single. All else was noise: so, so much noise.
How else to explain that the most aggressive, thrilling batting unit ever produced by this nation failed to muster a single six until the 292nd ball of their innings? How else to explain that an England win built on superhuman individual performances – Woakes with the new ball, Plunkett with the old, Stokes and Buttler with the bat, Archer in the Super Over – was in many ways the ultimate collective triumph? How else to explain that a nation that has spent much of its history looking down its nose at the world of one-day cricket has now so thoroughly and thrillingly conquered it.
But perhaps all that can wait for now. Because England are world champions; and it means nothing and everything all at once. Nothing, because life goes on. Time passes. The problems of the world won’t be moved or solved by something as frivolous as a game of cricket. But it means everything, too: what is life for, after all, if not moments like this? And for those who lived through this one, whether they were on the other side of a screen, on the edge of their seats, or breaking the stumps with sweaty, scrambling gloves, it will be a moment they remember and treasure until their very last breath.
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