Spare a thought this evening for Ben Stokes, a player for whom most things have gone right the last 18 months or so. With England needing to restrict the West Indies to fewer than 18 runs off the final over, and with Marlon Samuels marooned at the non-strikers end, confidence must have been high. Four consecutive sixes to win the match with two balls to spare probably wasn’t figuring in many worst nightmares for the England team, and yet that’s exactly what happened.
And you’ve got to laugh. Not because the England players remotely deserve the pain they are going through in any way whatsoever – but because sport can be magnificent sometimes, no matter how much administrators try to ruin it. And make no mistake, that was magnificent. West Indies were if not quite dead and buried then certainly on life support, England on the verge of victory. And yet, there’s always the slight possibility in any sporting encounter for the extraordinary to happen. It doesn’t very often, for if it did the exceptional would become the mundane, but when it does it is enough to make any viewer apart from the most partisan and one eyed stand and applaud. The essence of joy in sport is to chuckle delightedly at special achievements.
The incredible finish doesn’t alter the truth that England could and should have posted a much better score than they did; some dismissals were unfortunate, some a little careless, albeit within the confines of a format where a high risk approach is a necessity and often highly rewarded. It is difficult and unreasonable to criticise players for doing the same thing that gains them success when on occasion it leads to failure, unless that failure is evidence of failing to learn. Equally, safety first is never a profitable means of playing 20 over cricket, but a fair few England players will look on their final with regret. England’s disastrous start in reaching 23-3 was one they never entirely recovered from, although Joe Root once again did his best, and David Willey in the closing overs got England up to some kind of score.
One of the key arts of captaincy is for decisions and gambles to come off, and in attempting to defend a moderate total, opening the bowling from one end with Joe Root was definitely a gamble, but one that did indeed come off, removing both Gayle and Charles in his opening over. From there the West Indies were struggling to catch up, and the required rate began to rise. Marlon Samuels received a life when initially given out caught behind only to be reprieved by the TV umpire. This is as unsatisfactory as it always is. It’s been demonstrated on so many occasions that foreshortening makes the ball look like it touched the ground when it didn’t, to the point where the late Tony Greig showed a ball several inches off the ground appearing to be grassed. Did it carry? Who knows. Television is a poor means of examination precisely because it is fundamentally misleading. Those saying it touched the ground are doing so on the same flawed evidence in the first place – it is simply impossible to know. The umpires need to take control here and make decisions, and onlookers need to accept their judgement as being based on better evidence than the television can provide, that of seeing the action in three dimensions.
Willey was the pick of the bowlers, alongside Adil Rashid, as their ability to restrict the batsmen first tilted the game towards England, and then seemingly had it won.
The fall out from the tournament will undoubtedly continue over the next few days. Darren Sammy had plenty to say at the presentation, not holding back in his criticism of the WICB and stating his uncertainty about whether the team would play together again. There’s no doubt at all that cricket in the Caribbean is in serious trouble; where the primary responsibility lies is open to debate, but if this victory concentrates minds in a region where cricket remains a passion, then perhaps it will be worthwhile. The problem is that we’ve been here before, and it made little difference. There are no signs it will this time either, for a disconnect between administrators and players and supporters are hardly the sole prerogative of the English.
If there’s one thing to act as a saving grace in England’s defeat, it’s that it has stopped some of the more predictable sources from gloating about how the ECB have handled things perfectly over the last couple of years and how a win would have justified it all. It clearly doesn’t, in the same way that defeat doesn’t make those criticisms correct either. But the desire from some to cheerlead the actions of a board that’s demonstrably untrustworthy remains as downright peculiar as it ever was. With 19 required off the final over, the suspicion that “Who needs Kevin Pietersen?” tweets and articles were about to be sent out is a strong one. And here’s the point, that argument is valid win or lose, it’s just that it tends not to appear when England lose. For those it will not present a problem, for they will doubtless pop up again next time the players on the pitch perform well, the obsession is peculiar from those who profess not to care.
And the England team? They’ve performed well in this tournament, probably significantly above expectations. Eoin Morgan has not had the best time with the bat, but has led the team well. The bowlers improved by the game, while the batsmen were explosive, and reasonably consistent, notably the outstanding Root. Those players will be crushed by the loss, and particularly the way it happened, and exhortations to be proud of themselves will fall on deaf ears. That’s the nature of elite sportsmen and women – second is nowhere. But England do have a collection of highly talented cricketers, and despite the ructions above have been a credit to themselves and the shirt they wear.
The tournament itself is a testament to the belief that less is more, for by going straight to semi-finals rather than quarters, each group match became critical. The main competition was short and sharp, entertaining and often nail biting. The continuing disdain for the Associate nations and the way they were kept out of sight before the entry of the Test playing countries remains as contemptible as it appeared a month ago. In 50 over cricket, the ICC have gone for the ultimate – making the tournament long and boring and excluding the outsiders to peering through the gates at the party within. There isn’t so much wrong with cricket that it couldn’t be improved by exiling the sport’s bureaucrats and power hungry businessmen to a remote island somewhere.
As for the media, there will doubtless be much wailing about the outcome here, but the reality of T20 is being wise after the event to explain wins or losses only makes sense where a team is clearly off the pace. England could have won today, but didn’t. It’s just sport – trying to find explanations in a very tight match is merely speculative. There was a huge amount wrong with how England played the game for about a decade, the way they are playing it now is exactly how they should play, and the antithesis of how many in the ECB establishment allowed them to play for a long time. And when that basic concept has been corrected, to the credit of players, captain and coach, it is a bit much for those who stood in the way all that time to try to claim the credit. Some you win, some you lose – but play the right way and the opportunities to win are much greater.
Well done the West Indies, both men and women. The party tonight will be good.