A game at a fabled venue ended in heartbreak. And in its aftermath, a man who had been reduced to tears vowed that he would work hard, train hard, put body and mind on the line, do whatever it takes for however long it takes – but at the next opportunity that presented itself, he would win.
That man was Novak Djokovic; the venue was Roland Garros; the date, June 7, 2015. (I wrote about Djokovic’s quest here, so I’ll refrain from repetition.)
That man was also Eoin Morgan who, after England crashed out in the group stage of the 2015 World Cup, determined that he would do whatever it took to refashion the team, to jettison a turgid style of play that was seemingly embedded in its DNA, to embrace a free-spirited style of play that was antithetical to the English style.
British sport celebrates the accomplishments of its mavericks – think George Best and David Beckham in football, think Ian Botham, David Gower, Kevin Pietersen, Freddie Flintoff and a host of others in cricket. But it is a celebration of the outsider, the other; there is always a wistful undertone to the applause, a sense of ‘Yeah, great job, now if only the bloke would be a bit more English…”
Morgan set out to change that and, ironically as things turned out, borrowed his bible from the Brendan McCullum-led New Zealand whose central commandment, in the 2015 edition, was ‘Thou shalt not take a backward step’.
Who knew that four years later Morgan, as captain of a bunch of un-English buccaneers, would walk out for the toss with Kane Williamson, who in the interim had scrapped the McCullum playbook and refashioned New Zealand in his own pragmatic, calm, composed image? Who knew that in a game that celebrates 300+ scores, the “underdogs” would upset one of the favorites in the semi-final, and end up dead even with the other favorite in the final, via a game-plan that identifies an antediluvian 240 as par?
Who knew the hosts and prohibitive favourites would, against a team that “did not deserve to be in the semi-finals”, produce a game that is already being hailed as the greatest ODI ever?
It isn’t that, not in game terms, not when random chance dictated so many of the defining moments. But it is an unforgettable narrative, an epic of Homeric proportions, a story of people who managed to be heroes and villains and heroes again, sometimes within the space of minutes, a story of the gods of chance taking a hand in the affairs of mortals, as Hera, Pallas Athena, Apollo, Poseidon and others had intervened in the events that led to the fall of Troy.
And it left a bitter aftertaste when, with both teams dead even after 50 overs (while, some four kilometres away, Djokovic was putting on another display of will and nerve and grit against Roger Federer), dead even after the tie-breaking super over, the game would be decided in the most frivolous fashion, on which team had hit more boundaries in the game.
Nothing illustrates the game’s short-sightedness as much as this, that it believes – in the face of all evidence, including the low-scoring, slow-burn narrative of this game – that ODI cricket is about spectacle, about fours and sixes that can be packaged and sold to a sponsor.
If you needed to break a deadlock that persists even after the super over, why not – borrowing from football – a sudden death series of super overs? (Oh, but broadcasters have schedules to keep, sponsored after-match programmes to run).
Or why not adjudicate the result on the basis of which team lost the lesser number of wickets? (No, I am not trying to find a way to make New Zealand win, though I was rooting for them – it is just the calculus of resources).
This was cricket in excelsis; its final determination was, sadly, out of step with the tenor of the game itself.
EPICS are not easily digested in their entirety. I’ve read the Iliad – Homer’s version, but also the many versions and interpretations that have sprung up, like David Malouf’s Ransom, Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles, David Gemmell’s reinterpretative trilogy, and many more. Just as I have read the Mahabharat, but also its spin offs and perspective narratives such as Mrityunjaya by Shivaji Sawant, Yuganta by Iravati Karve, Until the Lions by Karthika Nair, Randaamoozham by MT Vasudevan Nair (which I transcreated some years ago into English). And I still keep going back to those epics, because they are so layered, so nuanced, that they perennially refresh themselves and offer something new on each fresh reading.
This game is like that. About 12 hours after the trophy was one and lost, what remains are vignettes, thought-fragments, little incidents that tease a much larger narrative waiting to be uncovered – but not the full story, not the complete epic, not yet. And perhaps not ever; perhaps this game will, as more games are played and contexts change, provide fresh nuance, new perspectives. Who knows?
For now, all I have in my mind are discrete vignettes. Like Trent Boult, for instance. One of the new breed of pace bowlers who are not consigned to forgotten outposts once their spells are over. The first time I noticed him, it was not for his bowling but for this:
In a team studded with fielders of breath-taking ability, Boult is still a standout. And even more than his catching up close, it is his breathtaking snares on the boundary that define Boult the fielder.
How does it happen, then, that a man of his proven skill and ice-cool temperament (which was on display later when he gave clinical finishing touches to two run outs, in both of which he made the gather look far easier than it was) casually step on the line the way he did after easily taking Ben Stokes’ lofted shot at long on? There was a foot separating him from the rope when he held the catch; his base as he held it was stable; even allowing for a fielder’s involuntary step backwards to absorb the force of a well hit ball, Boult is among those who practice the relay throw to the point where it is part of muscle memory. So, how did he oh so casually step on that line? And how much will that haunt him in the course of what remains of his career?
ON another note, how is it that a sport that first wrote down its governing tenets on a piece of linen as far back as 1744, and which has for centuries been writing and rewriting those laws, still manage to make them confusing as heck?
Consider law 19.8: “If the boundary results from an overthrow or from the wilful act of a fielder, the runs scored shall be any runs for penalties awarded to either side, and the allowance for the boundary, and the runs completed by the batsmen, together with the run in progress if they had already crossed at the instance of the throw or act.”
What the heck does that even mean? Did that four that was added to Stokes’ two result from an overthrow? No, the throw was heading straight to the keeper. Did it result from a wilful act of the fielder? No, again – the fielder wasn’t wilfully trying to concede a boundary. Had the two batsmen crossed “at the instance of the throw or act”? No, Guptill threw just as Stokes was setting out for his second.
Given how this rule is framed (and you come across endless instances of such obtuse language when you go through the rule book), you could argue that the umpires were right – and you would be right. Equally, you could argue that the umpires were wrong – and you would still be right.
While on this, another pet grouse is the “soft signal”. If an umpire hasn’t seen whether a catch is taken cleanly or not, there is technology to assist him. Why is it necessary for the unsighted umpire to give a soft signal? How can he, if he did not see what happened? Where is the sense in using technology not to judge the fairness or otherwise of a catch, but to exonerate an umpire’s guess? How did “guilty unless proven innocent” creep into the cricket rule book?
BEN Stokes. If you made his story into a movie, no one would believe it.
Three years ago, in the final of the World T20, it was he who, with riches to defend, conceded four sixes to Carlos Brathwaite (my report here).
A little over a year ago, on the eve of the 2018 Ashes, it was he who got involved in a fracas outside a Bristol nightclub and came within a toucher of having to serve serious jail time.
It was part of a familiar pattern in English cricket – flamboyant all-rounders with all too human flaws (his predecessor was Freddie ‘Fredalo’ Flintoff).
But here, in this tournament, when it mattered most, he ascended from ignominy to immortality in the fashion of the epic hero. And it was no flash in the pan. He had single-handedly pulled his side out of a hole against Sri Lanka at Headingley with an unbeaten 82, albeit in an ultimately losing cause. When the rest of his mates collapsed around him at Lord’s against Australia, he had played a defiant knock of 89 – and ended up kicking his bat in frustration after tripping all over an incredible yorker from Mitchell Starc.
And it was Stokes who, after Jos Buttler departed with runs still to get (as he had against Bangladesh in 2015, in the game that dumped England out of that edition), took the game deep, held his nerve, converted what looked to be a Kiwi victory into a tie, retained even in that cauldron sufficient grace and poise to apologise to the fielding side for the inadvertent deflection that earned him four extra runs, and then, having already achieved the near impossible, kicked his bat in self-disgust that he could not take his team over the line.
And he wasn’t done yet. From the depths of the exhaustion that was all too apparent as the England innings neared its end, he pulled himself back and stepped out again, alongside Buttler, for the Super Over – in the process showcasing reserves of physical and mental strength that marked him out as one of sport’s chosen few. (Four kilometres away and at exactly the same time, Djokovic was putting those very same qualities on display against Roger Federer in an exhausting fifth-set tie-breaker).
That Stokes final, titanic effort came against the country of his birth is just one more strand in an endless narrative (think Grant Elliott, to cite just one example; or from this match itself, think of the Barbados-born Jofra Archer, an afterthought by the national selectors, playing the pivotal part in England’s ultimate win). But that he had the grace to apologise to the fielding side for something that, though clearly not his fault, was to his benefit, and that in the aftermath it still weighed on his mind to the point where, suppressing his own euphoria, he said “I think I’ll spend the rest of my life apologising to them” is the moment, the act, the memory of Stokes that I will keep tucked away safe in that part of the memory where inspirational moments are stored.
I referred earlier to the evergreen nature of the great epics, and this was one I will likely revisit and find fresh narrative strands, fresh fodder for thought.
Also in an earlier report, I had referred to the England-New Zealand final as the last match report I will ever write. I’m grateful to a sport I have followed from the seventies and covered from the mid-nineties for giving me this nerve-shredding, infuriating, exhilarating game to go out on.