WHEN you watch a cricket match as a fan, it is the discrete incidents that linger in the memory. The searing yorker that trips up the batsman and puts him on his back adjacent the shattered stumps; the gravity-defying catch; the effortless-seeming shot that sends the ball soaring into the cheering crowds… But when you have to write sport, it is the narrative that makes it worth the while.
For the fan, thus, England against India (or Australia) at Lord’s would have been the perfect finale; for the writer, New Zealand playing England is about as perfect as it gets. It’s not just that England, the three times runners-up and the butt of all jokes, was up against a team that has made it to the last four eight times in twelve tries, and was the losing finalist four years ago. What makes this contest fascinating is the scarcely credible role reversal.
Humiliated by New Zealand at Wellington in the 2015 edition of the Cup, England whole-heartedly embraced the Brendan McCullum-led team’s frenetic attacking style. And New Zealand, with the legendary Baz gone, patterned itself on the pragmatic, measured style of new captain Kane Williamson to the point of almost becoming as stodgy, now, as England was four years ago.
It was a contest of skills, a clash of wills, as death matches tend to be – but more importantly, it was a 100-over referendum on contrasting philosophies. And it produced a wire-taut game that, while lacking the “spectacle” that have the fans in a ferment, was balanced on a knife-edge right through its length.
In 47 matches before the final, a score in excess of 245 has been chased successfully only twice. In five ODIs at Lord’s starting with the 2017 Champion’s Trophy final, the team batting first has won all five. On three previous occasions, England has chased in a final, and lost all three.
But it was not history or statistics that dictated New Zealand’s decision to bat first on a green-tinged pitch that has sweated under the covers until an hour before start of play, and under overcast skies – the decision was in keeping with the Williamson philosophy that his varied, and uniformly brilliant, bowling attack was uniquely fitted to defend even modest scores.
To give their bowlers a chance, though, the Kiwis had to first put up runs – around 260 would suffice even against England’s frenetic batsmen. Two passages of play explain the Kiwis’ failure to get there.
The first came right at the start. To counter the metronomic accuracy and late movement of Chris Woakes, the out-of-sorts Martin Guptill took to coming down the track, forcing the bowler to both length and line and work against muscle memory. The aggressive mindset, initially labored, seemed to revive in the batsman memories of his best, when a momentary lapse of concentration cost him his wicket.
Woakes bowled length and brought the ball back off the seam; Guptill – who until then had met both opening bowlers with a straight bat – tried to on-drive with the closed face, missed, and was hit on the pad.
Guptill’s wicket, by itself, would not have rattled the Kiwis who by now are inured to the fact that the once free-flowing batsman, now enduring the worst form of his life, has in this tournament been like the motorcycle outrider who ushers the VIP onto center-stage. The problem was not the wicket; it was that Guptill decided to review. The ball was hitting around the middle of middle; the Kiwis lost their review, and this would ramify disastrously when Ross Taylor, who was just beginning to look good, was adjudged LBW to a Mark Wood delivery that was clearly going over the stumps, and had to walk because the DRS get-out-of-jail card had been wasted.
The second, and equally definitive, period of play involved Williamson. The Kiwi master-bat subjects oppositions to the death of the thousand cuts – or more accurately, nudges down to third man. He has every shot in the book, but in the early stages when he is building a base for his team, Williamson tends to use the dab to third man to roll the strike over, keep the board ticking, and force bowlers to avoid the channel and try different lines – which is when he cashes in.
England stymied Williamson’s favorite ploy by tightening the line to between third and fourth stump, with one or more slips in place to discourage the dab and the inner ring drawn up mesh-tight to deny alternate ways of rotating strike.
The Kiwi skipper, in his understated way, is a brilliant reader of the game; adding to which is a preternatural calm that allows him to absorb immense pressures without seeming in any way discommoded. He absorbed 11 dot balls before getting off the mark with a tip and run; it took him 32 balls to break into double figures. He saw off the first spells of the pacy Jofra Archer and the Scrooge-like Woakes, whose first spell of 42 deliveries included 33 dot balls against just 19 runs conceded for one wicket.
With Henry Nicholls looking settled at one end, Williamson bided his time and, once the new ball bowlers were done, began quietly sniping away at England’s third, fourth and fifth bowlers. Liam Plunkett and Mark Wood were flat in their opening spells and Adil Rashid underwhelming; the run-rate, which was 3.3 RPO after the first powerplay, began nudging up steadily; New Zealand progressed from 50 to 100 in just 48 balls. The key statistic to understand this passage and what followed is this: between them, those three bowlers had, at the start of the 23rd over, bowled a collective spell of 10-0-60-0, and England was beginning to look harried.
And then, off the fourth ball of the 23rd over, Williamson had an uncharacteristic lapse in concentration. Liam Plunkett, after an ordinary first spell, changed ends and began bowling up the slope at Lord’s. It was fairly basic Plunkett: cross seam on the fuller length, the sort of stuff he bowls with predictably regularity through the middle of every innings. Williamson, usually so decisive with his footwork, for once was neither forward nor back on the push, and on England’s review, hot-spot showed an incriminating spike as ball passed bat.
The unexpected breaking of the 74-run partnership, just when the Kiwis looked to have taken control of the game, had a debilitating effect on Nicholls who, again off Plunkett, stayed parked on the back foot and dragged another pace-off, cross-seam delivery seaming marginally in, onto his stumps.
That period of 24 deliveries, which produced two wickets and yielded just 15 runs, was critical – it came just when England’s bowling resources had been stretched to breaking point; it meant that Taylor and Tom Latham had to put their heads down and bat with caution, in the process allowing the under-pressure England bowlers to settle down. Liam Plunkett, to whom England look for control in the middle phase, had gone for 19 in his first three; his next four overs fetched two wickets for seven runs, and illustrates how the game turned on its axis with that one moment when Williamson switched off.
Once Taylor walked back, done by a bad decision by the umpire and a worse one by Guptill in wasting the review, the wind went out of the Kiwi sails. A late order assault, which the Kiwis seemed to be setting up for at the halfway mark, failed to materialize thanks partly to the steady fall of wickets, and partly thanks to a fast bowling masterclass at the death by Jofra Archer, who bowled five overs straight and put on a show: short balls that came at the batsman at scorching velocities; short balls with pace off; elevator-style bounce off length and tennis ball bounce from back of length.
Woakes was the beneficiary, as for instance when Archer in a searing over repeatedly smacked the ball into Colin de Grandhomme’s ribs, and arm, and thigh, and other body parts and the rattled batsman tamely toe-ended a Woakes slower ball to mid-off.
WILLIAMSON has, by a distance, to be the best bowling captain in this tournament. It helps to have Trent Boult and Matt Henry leading a varied attack that can call on the searing pace of Lockie Ferguson, the niggardly line bowling of de Grandhomme, the movement and variety of Jimmy Neesham and the nagging accuracy of Mitchell Santner – but even so, Williamson excels in the way he sets precisely the sort of fields that allow individual bowlers to bowl to their strengths.
The opening powerplay was a perfect example. Williamson had just one fielder – deep fine leg – outside the circle; he had two slips and four fielders well inside the ring on the on-side, plus two in front of the batsman on the off. Against the most destructive opening pair in the world game at present, Williamson set a field that encouraged his bowlers to bowl Test-match lines and lengths. Singles were protected, boundaries were challengingly thrown open.
Trent Boult nearly took Jason Roy out with the first delivery of the match, a full length inswinger that thudded onto the batsman’s pad. New Zealand reviewed; Roy survived, just, when it turned out to be ‘umpire’s call’.
The efficacy of the two opening bowlers, and of Willamson’s field, is best indicated by this: At the end of 10 overs, England was 39/1, scoring at an uncharacteristic 3.9 RPO. And of those 39 runs, 28 came off boundaries when the batsmen chanced their arms. Boult asked questions of both edges that neither Roy or Bairstow had answers for; Henry repeatedly turned Roy inside out and, with very full length and late seam movement, had him nicking off.
Even more remarkable was the innings of Joe Root, one of the most easy, relaxed batsmen in the contemporary game. The electric pace of Ferguson and the nagging accuracy and late movement of de Grandhomme troubled him to such an extent in a tortured 30-ball stay that he attempted an uncharacteristic hoik at the latter, advancing a good few meters to swipe at thin air; off the next ball, the bowler had Root nicking off to the away-seamer on length.
Bairstow rode his luck, twice inner-edging dangerously close to the stumps and having de Grandhomme drop a regulation, waist high return catch. He tried to muscle his way out of trouble against an attack that was giving him nothing, and perished when, for once, an inner edge off his flailing horizontal bat crashed into the stumps off Ferguson.
Eoin Morgan walked out into the by now predictable barrage of short-pitched deliveries. Ferguson, who stepped up the pace a few notches, thumped him on the body, then pinged him on the back of the helmet. Having rattled the England captain’s cage, the tall fast bowler then went to the deep cover boundary, raced in when Morgan attempted to carve Neesham over the in-field, flung himself headlong and, while suspended mid-air as though in a sling, took a two-handed blinder to reduce England to 86 for 4 in the 24th over.
The standout feature of the first 30 overs of the England response was de Grandhomme. It wasn’t that he did anything extraordinary – merely that he produced a masterclass of how to use the old virtues of tight line and full length.
A cricket ball is the centerpiece of the trophy the two teams were fighting for, and it has a slightly angled seam. de Grandhomme bowled as if he had taken his cues from that: he either had the seam angled towards middle stump, or towards second slip; that, and his unrelenting discipline in line, produced a sustained spell of 10-2-25-1 that pegged England back so thoroughly that at the end of 30 overs, the flamboyant batting side had managed a mere 115/4.
Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler reined in their aggressive instincts and began to dig England out of the hole. It wasn’t easy – the rate moved past the 4-run mark only in the 34th over; both batsmen had their share of mishits that eluded the fielders, inner edges that flashed past the stumps and other near mishaps (including, at the death, a Starc-style yorker that tripped Stokes up and put him prone on the ground).
But they survived – and, in a key difference between this and earlier England sides, they held their nerve. When and how they could, they kept ticking off the runs in whatever fashion they could – authoritative at times, edgy as frequently, but always chipping away at the target. And the more they chipped, the more the field had to spread, which in turn made singles easier to come by.
Stokes anchored, Buttler counter-attacked. And for the first time, England had a partnership of some substance. And it was the bowling side’s turn to feel the pressure. de Grandhomme had bowled out in the 29th over; Henry finished his quota (10-2-40-1) in the 40th over, the last ball of which was ramped by Buttler over the keeper for an audacious four.
England went into the death needing 72 off 60 – a fairly simple ask for any modern batting side with wickets in hand, more so for this England team. The Kiwis had to find a balance between choking down the runs and taking wickets. Though the pitch was on the slower side, it wasn’t as two-paced as the one on which the Kiwis defended a similar total against India in the semis.
It was this passage that underlined the incalculable value Buttler brings to this side. Well as Stokes played, he couldn’t keep the pace on this wicket, against this bowling. But Buttler was in that zone the real top guns can find when they need it. His 50 took a mere 52 balls; his insouciance, that mocked the pressures associated with a tight chase in a Cup final, gave Stokes the breathing room the southpaw needed. His driving through and over the covers was a revelation on a pitch that did not allow any other batsman on either side such luxuries. And his strike rate, of exactly 100 RPO, was higher by far than that of any other batsman on either side.
But if confidence was the chief characteristic of his innings, an excess of it led to his downfall. He was picking off a boundary every over with ease; he had already carved Ferguson over extra cover off the second ball of the 45th over. Three balls later, to a slower ball on shorter length from Ferguson, Buttler attempted a carve over point. Tim Southee, in as a substitute, first went the wrong way, then righted himself, sprinted and dived to grab the sort of catches that only the Kiwis appear capable of pulling off with such match-turning regularity.
That was what the Kiwis needed – the wicket of the one batsman who seemed capable of negating their patented death-overs choke. Off the first ball of his last over, Ferguson defeated a Chris Woakes slash with pace, found the top edge and Latham circled under the high chance to hold.
Stokes, who had contributed 46 runs (70 balls) to the 110-run fifth wicket partnership, had to take on the onus. Boult would bowl the final over; the key was the 49th over, which had to be bowled by Neesham.
And then, in a manic spell of six balls, the game produced all the drama that had been missing thus far. Two singles off the first two balls, an asking rate of 22 off 10, and Plunkett tried for the magic shot, getting under the ball and targeting the straight boundary. He only managed to find Boult, though.
Stokes, who had crossed, lofted to long on. Boult – who makes a habit of such catches -- held about a foot inside the line, and then stepped on it just as he tossed the ball to Guptill backing him up. A catch would have ended the game, the six brought the ask down to 15 off 7. Next ball, Neesham did what you do with a tailender: straight, full, beating the swipe and hitting Archer’s stumps.
Boult versus Stokes, with England needing 15 from six. Boult produced two full length deliveries wide of off; two dots, both driven to cover. Figuring he was going to get the same again, Stokes pre-determined, went down on one knee and smacked the six over long on.
And then came one of those twists that the cricketing gods produce. Stokes drove to long on and scampered for the second. The throw came in, hit Stokes’ bat as the batsman dived into his crease, and ricocheted to the boundary. Since it was not intentional, the umpires had to give the six – and the ask became 3 off two.
Penultimate ball, driven to long off; Rashid run out trying for a second. Two needed off the last ball; a Stokes on-drive gets the single and gets Wood run out trying for the second.
50 overs had been bowled. And both teams were exactly level. It was the kind of game about which you could say, in truth, that neither side deserved to lose.
Per the rules, the team that batted second bats first in the super over. Stokes and Buttler versus Boult: 15 runs, with a four apiece by Stokes and Buttler. Jofra Archer, the newest, least experienced member of the England side, versus Martin Guptill – the most out of form batsman in the Kiwi ranks -- and Jimmy Neesham.
A wide, then a brilliantly run two, then a Neesham loft over the midwicket boundary for six; another superb second stolen by Guptill; then a single. And then the ball to decide it all – bowled by a young man against whom no batsman has scored 16 in one over in the entire tournament, versus Guptill who, after the first game of the league, hasn’t been able to buy a run for love or money.
Guptill drives to midwicket; the throw in is good, and he is beaten on the second. Tied again, but that tie, per the rules, gave the game to England.
Somehow, it felt like I couldn’t care less. That the super over didn’t matter; the ultimate result didn’t register in the mind. When it was all over, what I was left with was the feeling the former Times’ chief writer Simon Barnes once described, and I paraphrase here:
Fans, disbelieving of what they had just seen, and beatific that they were alive and awake and watching as boundaries were stretched and ‘impossible’ was redefined. It was that kind of a night, when it felt good to be alive, and awake, and watching. Of being part, if only a passive part, of magic.