Sport, the great leveller. Did anyone truly think West Indies would have the better of the tour's exchanges, and if they did, do they sleep with the prophets? 2-1 in the Test matches, 2-2 in the one-day stuff - quite a return. After the rain in Grenada last Monday, somehow, somewhere, a series decider should have been on the bill.
Of all the game's heavyweights, none can have caused such destruction in so short a time as Chris Gayle. Given the awkward, uneven pitch in St Lucia, England walked onto the field on Saturday with just a semblance of hope in defence of 113, and had it blown away by the most ludicrous display of ball-striking imaginable. Chris Woakes was pretty much manhandled and Mark Wood, bowling at 90mph and more, was dismissed as an irritant. It was a chastening experience that brought one of two reactions. The first, that England were pretty feeble with both bat and ball; the second that Eoin Morgan's team - a groundbreaking, high-octane outfit - had "one of those days", so let's leave it at that and move on. The trouble, as Freddie Mercury wrote, is that these are the days of our lives. Get it so wrong in a make-or-break World Cup game and the dream is over.
Let's deal with Gayle first. Be the bowler for a moment and consider that when you deliver full and straight and are planted onto the pavilion roof, you're under the hammer. Thus, you start to second-guess yourself with the not unreasonable conclusion that back of a length into the ribs is the next best option. This, as we now know, is promptly mowed 20 rows back into the bleachers. What you desperately need is movement in the air or off the seam, but without it, you are naked. Staying calm and searching for a solution, you cut your fingers across the seam of the ball and take the pace of it, a tactic that works well against Gayle when he is feeling his way into an innings but which almost certainly results in a lost ball when he is batting without a care in the world. Woakes went for the solution and... lost ball it was.
Gayle's method is to ensure that he stays leg side of the ball while at the same time clearing his right side - that's leg and hip - well out of the way of its line. This exposes his stumps, which draws you into the idea of hitting them. And that is the ball that goes flat like a bullet over extra cover, almost decapitating one of the ground staff en route into the ecstatic crowd, who have forgotten who they are cheering for and are now close to delirium at the sight of this Jamaican dude doing stuff ordinary folk find hard to imagine, let alone practise. This is one smart dude, remember, and none of what is happening is a fluke. Though the lower body is cleared, the upper body - chest and shoulders - stays pretty side-on, which holds him in the shot and makes for the consistently clean strike that breaks the hearts of those up against him and warms the cockles of those who paid for a ticket. If it fails to maintain that position, which happens when he tries to hit the shot too hard, there is every chance that the ball will spiral up in the air. So high is Gayle's confidence right now that there was next to no spiralling during a four-match series of freakishly clean striking every time. Age might have withered his capacity to move but in no way has it niggled at muscle or his mind.
Sure, he too has "those days", and is invariably criticised for them, but by announcing his impending retirement from international cricket prior to the series, he took the pressure, or should we say the expectation, off himself. Think Alastair Cook at The Oval last summer, batting as if it were the spring of his career; think Gordon Greenidge limping. No expectation, no pressure: free mind, freewheel; just bat, don't think. It is the zen space.
The World Cup is to be Gayle's curtain call on the international stage; the bowlers better hope for grass on the pitches or that when they play West Indies it's a do-or-die situation that reminds even the Jamaican dude of that crazy little thing called expectation.
So to England, and their worrying tendency to implode when the conditions are of one extreme or another. In Cardiff in the semi-final of the 2017 Champions trophy the batsmen were ambushed by a super-dry, low bouncing surface that offered spin - er, against Pakistan; at Lord's the same year by a green, damp pitch where the ball zipped around off the seam - er, against South Africa. In Colombo late last October they were were caught napping at 3-0 up in the series by a suddenly vibrant group of Sri Lankans who awoke from winter's sleep. Favourites for the World Cup England may be, infallible they are not.
Given the mistakes are mainly their own, the learning, as alluded to after the match by Morgan, has to happen now. It is the job of the top four, which by chance includes both the one-day and Test match captains, to recalibrate expectation in the event of a surprising pitch. On Saturday evening, Jonny Bairstow admitted to the spikes in his shoe slipping in the tacky surface, which is as good a clue as there is out there. It was clear by the contrast in Alex Hales' comfortable driving of over-pitched balls and uncomfortable attempts at cutting the short ball that both bounce and pace were uneven. This was the same in the Test match pitch and resulted in thoughtful and enterprising cricket by England that led to victory.
On Saturday however, Bairstow drove full steam ahead at a good length inswinger from the left-arm quick Sheldon Cottrell. (Bairstow is far too good a player to be bowled as often as he is.) Root was caught at third man, attempting the uppercut (the third time in the series he has been dismissed playing the shot). Hales was caught at the wicket cutting (no Test match lesson learned there) and Morgan was caught at long leg hooking (as distinct from pulling, which is a shot he has used brilliantly during the series). These are observations rather than criticisms, for batting is more art and instinct than science and regimen. What matters is to have thought through your options and taken in their angles. Risk is fine, unless the evidence suggests otherwise.
Trevor Bayliss agreed that the embarrassing defeat would remind England of the plain facts: five or six teams can with the World Cup, England are just one of them. Morgan was no less direct in his criticism, saying it simply wasn't good enough to fail so abjectly in the task of adapting to conditions. He was no more put out, however, than after the second game, in Barbados, where the ruthlessness for which he is searching went missing. In pursuit of 290 both he and Ben Stokes got into the 70s and got themselves out. From 159 for 3, England lost by 26. The captain hated that.
But, but, but... none of this makes England a bad team, only a less consistent one than the high standards expected by Morgan demand. Truth is, it is an exceptional team, unbeaten in ten consecutive full bilateral series, more than capable of the fantastic, and sure to send a shiver through every opponent who stands in its way. The plus points massively outweigh the few minuses. Attention to detail and sensible application when the problems that ongoingly confront any live sporting performance are suddenly to hand will dodge the fall that comes from taking any aspect of cricket's kaleidoscope for granted. It was ever thus.
In the final of the 1979 World Cup, Collis King made a breathtaking 86 from 66 deliveries, including ten fours and three sixes, and striking at 130 per hundred balls. At the other end, Viv Richards, who could do pretty much anything he chose to with bat in hand, played rather more sedately. He made 138 from 157 balls, striking at 88. He played out England's best and smoked the "fifth" bowler - Boycott-Gooch-Larkins, who went for 99 in their 12 overs. West Indies won by 92 runs. Nice thinking, Viv.
Four years later West Indies had India in the final and bowled them out for 183. A no-brainer - except it wasn't. The same Viv Richards came out with a dash but having got to 30-odd in no time, skied one of those famously thrilling pull shots to deepish midwicket, where Kapil Dev, running towards the grand stand, took a fine catch over his right shoulder. West Indies were bowled out for 140. Hubris is a six-letter word, but a very big word all the same. That is the lesson for England.