The 9th March 2015 will be a date forever inextricably seared into my memory. I was in my A-level history class that morning, with our teacher Mr Skeaping (coincidentally a fanatical English cricket fan) educating us as to the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis, signed in 1559 and widely regarded as a hugely embarrassing footnote in the annals of English history. Yet as soon as the class focussing on this egregious national humiliation had concluded did “The Skeapster” inform us of another; by breaking to us the unfathomable news that 10,000 miles away in Adelaide, the England men’s cricket team had just contrived to lose to Bangladesh. It was a result that confirmed the unthinkable: we were heading home from the World Cup at the first hurdle. While those of us in the class of a cricketing disposition sunk our heads into our collective palms (earning quizzical looks from the unconverted majority), Skeaping proclaimed this a new low in all his years of following English cricket, and as he exited to a dark room to contemplate this galling loss, I had no choice but to slouch my despondent soul to a politics class, where not even the scandalous subject of gerrymandering in the US political system could shake me out of my morgue-like state.
But what a difference four years and four months makes. The sights we saw at Lords at dusk on Sunday—England’s ecstatic ensemble cavorting with the trophy that had always eluded them thus far in their history—was the culmination of a four-year master plan first hatched out of the ashes of that devastating Bangladeshi defeat. This triumph may have been anticipated before the final against New Zealand: after all, since 2015 England have compiled clearly the most gifted line up in the world game, but no one who watched even just part of this most stunning of matchups could ever claim it as routine.
What transpired on Sunday was undoubtedly the greatest ever finish to a cricket match you will ever see. As the seasoned cricketing veteran will tell you, a tied game is an incredibly rare result. Not only was this one tied, but the super over system deployed to try and conjure a winner was tied as well. All this came in a World Cup final no less, the grandest stage of all. England only triumphed by virtue of hitting more boundaries than the kiwis throughout the game. Arbitrary? Undoubtedly. But just imagine the humungous anti-climax that would’ve resulted from the only other alternative one could envisage: a shared trophy.
Put simply, this game, and particularly its denouement was the most nerve-shredding, heart-pumping, soul-destroying yet ultimately delirium inducing (for England fans) spectacle you could ever watch. It was a finish that made you feel pity for those not inclined to follow sport—how else are they able to reach the soaring highs of ecstasy in their lives that the England fans both in North West London and the millions watching cricket on free-to-air TV in this land for the first time in fourteen years felt on this most momentous of summer evenings? I’m not even going to try to attempt to frame those dizzying last few hours of action; my vocabulary could never do it justice. Put incredibly simply, after faltering early in their chase of New Zealand’s 241, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler dragged the hosts back into contention before a flurry of late wickets put the kiwis back in the driving seat. Drama and controversy then ensued as England, driven on by the unbeaten Stokes, somewhat fortuitously levelled New Zealand’s score with their last ball of the innings to force a super over decider. What happens next would scarcely be summarised neatly if I had 10,000 words at my disposal. Just watch the highlights. Devour the occasion and the emotion of it all.
How fitting too that this final was played against New Zealand: the very side who inspired England to revolutionise their tactics in One Day Internationals after the last World Cup, triggering the start of the road that culminated in a blaze of such thrilling glory. For them, defeat was incredibly hard to stomach.
This most loveable of teams, led by the incredible Kane Williamson whose man of the tournament award was richly deserved, played some wonderful cricket over the competition, most notably in their upset of India in the semi-finals and in their bowling here in the final. Yet as is the case in sport, there will always be winners and there will always be losers. They will return home empty handed but without a doubt having the love and admiration of many millions across the globe in their hearts.
Yet this piece isn’t just a report on the final match of this, the 12th iteration of the men’s Cricket World Cup—there were ten teams, 44 completed fixtures and spades of drama over the six-week cricketing bonanza that demand attention.
This was of course the first time the competition was played with ten teams—all playing each other—in a league format. The marathon group stage ensured teams could embark on a genuine roller-coaster of emotion throughout the tournament and this couldn’t be more true of England, whose own competition contained as many twists and turns as “Casa Amor” week in Love Island. After kicking off in solid fashion with four wins in their first five games, a shock defeat to Sri Lanka followed by a thrashing at the hands of Australia left their fortunes hanging by a thread. Like true champions however, they rallied to convincing victories over India and the kiwis to book a semi-final spot before steaming past the aforementioned aussies and onto Lords and the final, which as already explained fluctuated such to the extent it acted as the perfect microcosm for the hosts’ tournament. Perhaps the major advantage of the elongated group format was the diluting of the effect of matches ruined by rain. Indeed a horrifically sodden week in early June threatened to derail the tournament’s credibility; thankfully though skies were largely blue for the duration after.
Each team playing nine games also gave sides ample time to display their potential, which they all did at various points. Underdogs Afghanistan, despite the inevitable disappointment at losing every game, can take solace from the fact they pushed powerhouses India and Pakistan extremely close; had they just held their nerves then we may well have been toasting an unforgettable tournament for the minnows. This was expected to be a laborious tournament for both Sri Lanka and the West Indies, yet both to their credit managed to conjure up days in the sun. Bangladesh, despite the superhuman efforts of Shakib Al Hasan, couldn’t quite crack into the top table while the ever erratic Pakistanis’ late surge proved too little too late, as they were left to rue a slow start. The other semi finalists Australia may be disappointed with how their tournament finished: an ugly thrashing at the hands of eternal rivals England, yet a top four placing is absolutely no disgrace for a side that was in disarray just six months ago.
Yet I have to say on the whole this was not a format I enjoyed. It was simply too long and left a raft of dead rubbers as the league approached its denouement. South Africa best exemplified the flaws of the system: their tournament was all but over after the first week yet they had to drag themselves through almost another month of essentially meaningless fixtures before they were mercifully allowed to take presumably the first plane home. It was also a far too forgiving format; it seems very wrong to me that this system could allow for a team to theoretically lose 4 matches yet still go straight into the semis. Ultimately (although they’ll never admit it) it’s clear the International Cricket Council (ICC) devised this format to ensure India, with all the lucrative viewership their games bring, made it as far as they possibly could. In my mind the perfect format at present would be twelve teams split into two groups yet taking into account the ICC’s seemingly sole motivation is greed, they will surely inevitably admire their swelling profit margins as a result of this tournament and conclude there is no need to expand the competition’s reach at all, even if that means the neglecting of the game’s frontiers.
To say as well that the competition inspired a cricketing fever to sweep across these Isles is also something of a stretch. Barring the final, every other contest was contested behind a pay wall. This meant that while the few hundred thousand of us able to fork out (or in my case, leech off my parents) for a Sky Sports Cricket subscription could devour every twist and turn of each contest, the mainstream sporting consciousness over June and July was still concentrated on where the likes of Eden Hazard and Paul Pogba would ply their footballing trade next season. Indeed, it’s an indictment of how far cricket has slipped down the recreational hierarchy in this land that the final was arguably not even the biggest sporting event in London that day: south of the river, the mesmeric Novak Djokovic outduelled the immortal Roger Federer in a Wimbledon final for the ages.
Yet hope always endures. For the 4.5 million in the country who tuned into perhaps the greatest advert possible for the game on Sunday, it was made clear that cricket still has an innate ability to thrill the senses and convert the ignorant. With the newfound impetus this tournament has given the English game at the wheel and the greatest One Day side England has ever seen riding shotgun, we wait with baited breath to see what can be produced as an encore.