A bit more about all that

I am not going to write about all the controversy regarding yesterday’s result. The gist is this: New Zealand were hard done by some only tenuously logical ICC rules — as well as a really bad umpiring decision on the leg byes in the final over — but that no one would really care if it had been Australia or India which, I don’t know, is kind of rude? I get it, everyone loves New Zealand, but no one deserved to lose the way they did yesterday.

That said, they did lose. Or, at least, they didn’t win. This is going to be harsh but it’s not the ICC’s fault that New Zealand didn’t score 10 more runs in their innings. And it’s not the umpire’s fault that they let Stokes and Buttler bat England into the game. I feel like, in a lot of ways, it’s akin to an NFL team blaming a loss on a missed field goal. It’s not sour grapes, as much as it is failing to see the forest for the trees. I realize I might get hammered for this, but it’s my gut reaction to all the talk today. And I love New Zealand. The people, the team. Kane Williamson’s captaincy yesterday was brilliant. I had never seen anything like it before. They are a likable and very, very good cricket team. And I think, maybe, they would agree with me that the loss wasn’t the ICC’s or the umpires’ fault. And I think we can all agree that the ICC needs to have a long look at its rule book as soon as possible.

Anyway, I said I wasn’t going to talk about it, but here I am doing it anyway. The best recap on the day can be found by James Morgan over at The Full Toss. He more or less sums up the general sentiment on the internet today: everyone feels bad for New Zealand but that shouldn’t take anything away from England. And, more importantly, the ICC is a bit of a joke with its simply odd new rules every year. He also has a go at the ECB, who I think is unfairly missing out on a lot of criticism thanks to how the match played out. Morgan reminds us that they pulled the chair out from under their domestic 50 over tournament, despite the fact that the ODI has been the country’s marquee format for the last three years in the lead up to the World Cup. But now they are abandoning it for the hair brained Hundred. Have a read, it’s worth it.

Other than that, I am working on a longer post about the game that I hope to have done later in the week. Mostly, though, I am just basking in what yesterday brought us. I know that it didn’t end in the ideal manner — oh how I wish they had only given England five runs of the miss field and it had been four needed off of two and Rashid had either hit a six to win it or been clean bowled to put the weight on Wood to win it — but it was still oh just something to behold. Long before the controversy, it was still the greatest match any of us had ever seen. The general consensus at the bar was: “holy shit this is something fucking else.” The Stokes-Buttler partnership, Williamson’s aforementioned captaincy strangling the England batsmen into a fine pulp, grinding them down into the dirt to bring home glory for their tiny  country on the other side of the world. The whole day was brilliant. The sun came out in the afternoon. The shadows grew long. And the ending might have been a farce but when it happened I couldn’t help but applaud. You could seen the pressure lift and fall away from the England players’ faces. The weight of history, of a nation, bore down on them, but they just kept going, shook off the Kiwi stranglehold and won the whole damn thing.

7:30 in the evening on the northwest edge of the world’s greatest city, all those overs, all those deliveries, and it came down to a matter of feet and a lot of luck, there in the long shadows, Buttler dancing away into the night. What a moment. What a match.

I just wish it had ended with a Rashid six.

Holy sh*t.

I watched the match today at Brit’s Pub in downtown Minneapolis. I arrived right as the chase was beginning and there were maybe a dozen people there watching. As the England innings wore on, the crowd grew to about 45 or 50. Most of whom were supporting England, with the rest being neutrals or neutrals supporting New Zealand. By the end, it was a rollicking ship of a bar, as we heaved and turned on every ball, like we were being tossed by waves in a storm.

At around the 48th over or so of England’s innings, a woman was offered the seat next to mine at the bar by the one of the England supporters who could physically no longer sit down. She was beautiful. Long dark hair and features like a super model. I paid no attention, the greatest cricket match of all time was happening. However, with three or four balls left of New Zealand’s Super Over, she leaned over and asked me: “so who’s winning?”

I literally had no answer for her. There was no answer really. I mumbled something like, “I don’t know New Zealand right now kind of but not really actually no one is winning.” And for the first moment I realized: there is never an answer to that question in cricket. Not ever. Sure, occasionally, a team is in the ascendancy, like if the team that opens the batting is at 74-8 after 10 overs. Or if there’s a team chasing 324 and they are 280-9 with two overs left. Then, sure, one team could be said to be winning. But, technically, in cricket, no one is ever winning until the last ball of the game is bowled.

And that was never more true than it was today at Lord’s.

At no point during today’s marathon World Cup final could you have accurately answered the question: “so who’s winning?” Or even given it an educated guess. The match was so even throughout every delivery that it was almost a miracle of sport. It was a truly magical day of cricket. And, yes, it’s a shame on how it was decided — by the fact that England had the most boundaries on the day — but that does not take away from the fact that the two teams on the day were all square, matching each other stroke for stroke, single for single, delivery for delivery. 100 overs. 130 deliveries. Nothing could separate them. And, more than that,  there were no goats today. Only heroes. Stokes, Williamson, Archer, de Grandhomme. All 22 were heroes. All 22 gave it their all.

There were no losers today. England won the World Cup, but New Zealand did not lose it. And we, the fans, were winners, too, as we were able to behold such a miracle of a game. And the game was a winner too. Here is cricket, in its dying stages, heaving itself back up off the canvas, and reminding the whole world why it is so great, and why we lucky few love it so much,

There’s a lot more to say, of course, but the one moment that sticks out for me above all the rest, isn’t a moment at all, but a man. Ben Stokes. He took an entire country on his shoulders and as his teammates fell away around him, carried them to glory. It was one of the gutsiest performances I have ever seen from a player, no matter the game. He ran himself absolutely ragged, and gave every last inch he had for England to win. Stokes, shaking off Bristol once and for all. Stokes, so tired at the end he could barely lift his arms. Stokes, leaning on his bat, in the long shadows of a London late afternoon at the non-striker’s end, begging for his chance to win it for his adopted country, only to fall just short. And then a few minutes later, walking out to bat the super over, his kit grass stained and filthy, ready to give just a little more.

**

At around the second over, the bar manager asked me if I was for England or New Zealand. I said I was a neutral, and that I just wanted it to go down to the final ball.

For once, my wish was granted, and then some.

What a match. What a day.

Cricket, am right?

More, hopefully, tomorrow.

What just happened?

A few days ago, I would have given this tournament a letter grade of maybe a B-minus. Today I would give it an A-. Maybe even a full A. For the semi-finals gifted us not one but two upsets, as New Zealand squeaked by India over two days and this morning England demolished a woeful Australia. And not only that, neither England nor New Zealand have won a World Cup, so no matter who wins on Sunday morning at Lord’s, we will get a new name on the trophy. The safe bet, I think, is on England, but as these semi-finals have shown, there are no safe bets at this tournament.

The New Zealand-India match — and to some extent, the England-Australia match — goes to show how thin the margins are in cricket, despite how long the matches are, especially at this high level. India probably played 50 hours or more of cricket over the course of the group stage, but per India’s captain Virat Kohli, it was just 45 minutes of bad cricket that cost India — the best team in the tournament by a country mile — a spot in the finals. 45 minutes. Just a hair over 1% of the cricket they played so far in the tournament. Remarkable. You cannot — cannot — switch off when you are playing at this level. Even just a few minutes could cost you. The length of the matches gives the impression that there is always room to make up for an early wobble, but that is rarely the case when you are playing a team as clinical as New Zealand. Sure the games are hours and hours, with as many as 600 balls bowled, but it all comes down to a few good deliveries, a whisper close run out, or the ball grazing the bat on its way to the wicket keeper.

And the same could be said to some degree of the England-Australia game. The difference was that Australia’s openers were gone almost immediately — again, just a few minutes of good bowling and sloppy batting — while England’s openers saw the ship safely through the first ten overs, which put the game more or less out of reach. And it isn’t just about what happens on the field either. England were terrible when Jason Roy was out, but started winning the minute he was back in the side. At its heart, cricket is an individual sport in the guise of a team game. And Roy proved that out again today. In most other sports, you can lose your best player and still be okay — Ronaldo in the 2016 Euro final for instance — but that is just not the case in cricket. England need Roy. And as long as he doesn’t throw away his wicket on Sunday, I think the match is England’s to lose.

That said, this tournament has proven that while cricket can be oh so very predictable, sometimes it’s not, and that’s why we all keep watching. It’s a remarkable sport with its long days governed by the minutiae of a single ball or a just a few minutes. Which, in a lot of ways, is like life. We go through our lives — which despite what people say, are very long, not very short — and all we focus on in the past are a few minutes here and there, minutes that define us and all that we do. Car accidents. A chance meeting. Something that happened on some random Sunday at 11 o’clock in the morning that broke your heart forever.

And so in life, just like in cricket, it’s best not to switch off, for you never know when magic is going to strike.

Until Sunday then. I can’t wait.

Knock Out

And so the group stage is over. I was hoping to be writing a different story today. One about Pakistan or Bangladesh or the West Indies. But instead we are looking at the semi-finals that everyone expected and quietly feared: the Big Three plus spunky New Zealand. It was almost a foregone conclusion, despite England’s wobble against Sri Lanka. And so I am not telling the story of how Pakistani or West Indian or Bangladeshi immigrants were treated by their new home, the United Kingdom, the host of the tournament. There is no poetic bend to this World Cup toward justice. It’s not that story. Instead it’s cricket’s usual story, the one we hear all the time, the horror story that is the Big Three’s utter domination of world cricket. How they manipulate the game to hoard even more power.

Many people — myself included — bemoaned the fact that there were only 10 teams in the format chosen for this World Cup, because it all but completely denied access to the non-Test nations. But another part of me is like, who cares? We just would have watched India and England and Australia run roughshod over countries who don’t have access to the money and power that those three countries have. But what do we do about this? Nothing. All three final matches will sell out. All three will attract huge television ratings — again, myself included — and all three will be flooded with buckets of cash from sponsors whose products we all buy. And so we are just as culpable. The system is corrupt, and we fund the system.

We didn’t get the semi-finals that we wanted. But we got the semi-finals we deserve. In the world that we fantasize about but do nothing to bring to fruition, Pakistan is playing England tomorrow, perhaps, and maybe South Africa is taking on New Zealand or India. Dream match ups. Instead, we will watch the semi-finals we were expecting to watch and were already bored with the minute the format was announced.

I am being overly cynical, I know, and probably a little harsh, especially for the fans of those four teams. Having your favorite team in a knockout match in the World Cup is a special kind of joy for a sports fan. It’s thrilling and nerve destroying and occasionally even fun. Tomorrow a billion cricket fans in India will tune in to watch the new guard and the old guard take on New Zealand, a like-able but fiercely competitive 11. And not as many people will watch England play Australia on Thursday, but across Australia people will rush through dinner to watch the first over, which will happen in Sydney at around 7:30 in the evening. Kids will be allowed to stay up late but not too late. And throughout England, a kid here and there will watch and fall in love with this remarkable old game, and that kid might be the one that saves it.

Again, I was being harsh. At the end of the day it’s cricket. It’s fun. We maybe didn’t get the semi-finals the poets in us all wanted, but we will get to see the best four teams in the one day game play each other. That’s maybe not poetry but it’s justice, in a sense. We will get to watch Kohli and Sharma and Taylor and Warner and Root. And Bumrah and Boult and Starc. What a shame if any of those players had been left watching from home? We would have missed out on the best cricket has to offer. So, yeah, it’s a shame that Jason Holder is already back in the Caribbean, but we do get Ben Stokes, who has played out of his mind, shaking Bristol off his shoulders, and has carried England to the knockouts.

Even when it is predictable, there is always poetry in cricket, that’s what keeps us coming back.

And cricket, more than any other sport on earth, is intensely and aggressively fair. So maybe it’s not anyone’s fault that the best teams in the world batted and bowled through damp and bad luck bounces and wickets that were roads to get to the knockouts, because that’s just how cricket works. We can’t blame a corrupt system if the game itself is what gave us the semi-finals we got.

Mostly, though, I will watch because I will be sad when it’s over. For nearly six weeks we have watched cricket every day, all day. A festival of the game we love. And on Sunday when the shadows start to grow long in St. John’s Wood, we will know that the end is near. And then the champion will be crowned and the guns will fall silent. And after six weeks of cricket every single morning, we will be greeted with nothing but quiet. And when the trophy is lifted, we will think about where we were four years ago, when Brendon McCullum was bowled out by Mitchell Starc with the third ball he saw, and David Warner and Michael Clarke and Steve Smith put out the result out of doubt. We will think about where we were then, and we will think where we will be four years from now, when India’s openers trot out into the heat and the haze of the tournament’s opening match. Where will I be? Where will all of us be? So much has changed in the last four years, and it will all continue to change. And we will mark time by these tournaments, and hope for a memorable final that we can hang onto as life happens over the next 48 months until we are all here again, writing, watching, cheering. Because it’s a World Cup summer, and World Cup summers are always the best summers.

Until next time.