Baz, Barry, Babar, and the beauty of sporting life

Kane Williamson's many rescue acts (1:36)

The New Zealand captain has bailed out his team four times in five matches this World Cup; but how long can he carry the batting? (1:36)

June 19, Edgbaston
Cool Hand Kane saw New Zealand home in a thriller. Predicting the slower offcutter bowled by Andile Phehlukwayo, Williamson launched it over midwicket and into the crowd. That left just a single to find from four balls. There was no Klusener-Donald moment and no sweat. New Zealand are playing impressive cricket. Beware the fellows in black caps.

I was calling the moment for television alongside Brendon McCullum, who was visibly edgy as the South Africans squeezed out Colin de Grandhomme and threatened to overturn what, for a while, had seemed a certain outcome in the Kiwis' favour. It was fascinating to see, up close, how much McCullum still cared. He had, of course, started the revolution in New Zealand cricket and led it all the way to the 2015 final at the Melbourne Cricket Ground where, depressingly, he and his team fell short.

I asked him about the extravagant shot that cost him his wicket in the first over of that final.

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"Y'know, I got back into the dressing room, sat down and just laughed. All my life I had dreamt of that moment. As a child, I played it out against mates day after day, and as a man I practised for it with an almost eerie certainty that one day it would come.

"I mean, the World Cup final, against Australia, at the MCG on a hot and sunny day and I was captain of my country. I won the toss, chose to bat and, with Martin Guptill at my side, walked out to open the innings. It cannot get any better.

"I took first ball and my plan was to set the tone. I was more ready for this than anyone outside my closest circle of friends and family could begin to understand. I was facing Mitchell Starc, the quickest and best bowler in the tournament. I was excited but not overexcited; in fact, I reckon I was pitch-perfect for anything Starcy might throw at me.

"And you know why I laughed back in the dressing room? Because I forgot the only single thing that really matters. I forgot to watch the ball.

"Yes, it was a bad shot, but it wasn't a bad idea, no way. If I had watched the ball and hit it well, the tone would have been set. But I didn't. After a lifetime of dreaming about exactly that moment, I messed it up. So I laughed - otherwise I'd still be crying."

And there, in a nutshell, is the unpredictable nature of a sporting life. The rewards are high but to achieve them, the margins are small.

June 21, Headingley: frightening Friday
"Dumb cricket," said Michael Vaughan.

Harsh but fair.

England were bowled out for 212 in pursuit of Sri Lanka's mediocre 232. Ben Stokes finished unbeaten on 82, a close-to-flawless innings played without reward. Around him, the second half of the England batting order threw themselves off the cliff. The first half of that same order had fallen foul of Lasith Malinga, a great one-day bowler, whose days, it had previously seemed, were numbered. Jonny Bairstow, James Vince, Joe Root and Jos Buttler were all out-thought by an old fox with a long-learned craft and unshakeable self-confidence.

Eoin Morgan bemoaned the lack of partnerships. The rest of us were even less detailed, and bemoaned the fact that someone, anyone, from Stokes' first partner to his last, didn't just stay in. The game is easy enough from the outer, but on this occasion criticism of England's batting was warranted. England now play Australia, India and New Zealand. They may need to win two from those three. Yikes.

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It is becoming clear that winning on your own patch has complications. The expectation on this team is enormous, made so by the superb cricket they have played for the best part of the last four years. Hot favourites when the tournament began - so hot, no opponent could touch them - they have slipped behind India, Australia and New Zealand among the likely lads. The game against the Aussies at Lord's will be bigger than Ben Hur. Win it and all will be at peace in the world; lose it and the bark of the hounds will signal the start of the hunt.

June 22, Hampshire Bowl and Old Trafford: super Saturday
Eleven runs separated India and Afghanistan; just five separated New Zealand and West Indies.

Afghanistan outplayed India but weren't quite sure how to put the finishing touches to their otherwise lively performance. It's just a question of playing more cricket at this level. Keep an eye on Mujeeb Ur Rahman, 18 years of age, and one of the best out there. Only ten years ago, these men were trading blows with Uganda and Cayman Islands; now it's India and Australia. Respect.

I arrived home from Southampton, fired up the barbecue - yes, the sun has its hat on in England, at last - and noticed West Indies were 142 for 2 chasing New Zealand's 291. On went the chicken, off went Hetmyer, Holder, Gayle, Nurse and Lewis. Bye, bye West Indies. And I turned off the TV.

June 23, Lord's
Great sleep, cup of tea, newspapers. Ye gods! There is a picture of Carlos Brathwaite on his knees, head bowed, a man traumatised. Was the defeat that bad? Yes and no, in that there were inches in it. A little this way or a little that; a little higher or a little longer and his final blow would have been the winning blow. "Had enough of heartbreak and pain / Had a little sweet spot for the rain," sings Bruce Springsteen on his new album, Western Stars. He might have written it for West Indian cricketers. And I had turned off the TV. What a clown.

As for Brathwaite, well, he has seen and smelt, touched and felt both ends of the spectrum. In Kolkata three years ago, he leapt to those stars after the slam-dunk in Ben Stokes' final over to win his team the World T20; in Manchester, he slumped to his knees shocked, spent, devastated. His memorable counterattack had been denied by the gods of cricket, who, it seems, share this stuff around.

In the MCC President's Box today were, among others, Barry Richards, Mike Procter and Sidath Wettimuny. Sidath had a few of us to his country home above the Victoria Golf Club a few miles outside Kandy during England's tour of Sri Lanka late last year. It is a spectacular place, built on five levels, on the side of the hill overlooking the course and the vast and beautiful lake. He's a gentle man with an inner steel. He was a fine batsman, neat and tidy, one whose runs appeared from nowhere. We talked briefly of his great land and the recent shocking events. He says the people have courage - and some! - and that the doors are open again for friendship and business.

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Richards waxed lyrical about Babar Azam: "See the way his hands and wrists work the ball to make best use of his really well organised set-up and technique." And Procter referred back to Jasprit Bumrah's accurate yorkers the day before: "Not difficult to bowl a yorker," he said, "just needs a bit of practice." Then he paused, before adding, "Having said that, Transvaal needed three to win off the last ball of the semi-final of the Gillette Cup. I bowled a low full toss, which Doug Neilson pinged through midwicket for four." What a cock-up by Procter... so maybe not so easy under pressure! We were quick to remind him of all the wickets, the hat-tricks indeed, that he took with inswinging yorkers. He smiled - a modest man left with memories. I saw him take four in an over in a Benson and Hedges Cup semi-final against Hampshire, including the wickets of Richards and Gordon Greenidge. Have a look on YouTube, it is gold.

Lord's looked a picture on the day that South Africa were finally knocked out of the tournament by a thoroughly enjoyable and professional Pakistan performance. Faf du Plessis called it both embarrassing and the lowest point of his career. Let's leave it at that.

We are back here on Tuesday for England's meeting with Australia. It will be an edgy, nerve-shredding occasion.

June 24, Hampshire Bowl
Up and down from London like a yo-yo. After a smidgeon of drizzle, play in the Bangladesh-Afghanistan match was delayed by ten minutes for no good reason other than that it can be. Cricket does itself no service on issues of ground, weather and light. Of course, it is pedantic to bang on about a ten-minute delay, but the point is a wider one. The instruction should be simple: play up and play the game. Apparently the players need half an hour from the toss to prepare themselves. Nonsense. The 20 minutes that were available today are fine. In general, play should take place the minute it becomes blindingly obvious to everyone that it should.

Gulbadin Naib put Bangladesh in to bat. Big mistake, huge. Bangladesh are not India - they've got Shakib Al Hasan! The result of Gulbadin's decision was a chunky defeat. Bangladesh are not a team to be trifled with.

Incidentally, most captains are changing their tune. The first fortnight of the tournament brought a high percentage of decisions to bowl first. The last week, not so. The pressure of chasing in one-off World Cup matches is very different from the regular bilateral series to which the players are accustomed. Ask anyone from the great West Indian side who played in the 1983 final.

June 25, Lord's
My first day watching cricket from the stands in, I don't know, 20 years probably. Loved every second.

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Mind you, this wasn't from the bleachers. Me and the far greater half were guests of the MCC president, Anthony Wreford, and were in majestic company. As England were dismantled by the Australians, Stephen Fry talked about the pressure of losing confidence, how hard-earned it is, and how difficult it will be to find again.

Confidence is a precious commodity, agreed Andrew Slack, the all-conquering Wallabies rugby captain of 1984, who marvelled at the ebb and flow of form in sport and pointed out that England's mojo was in the process of being stolen from under their noses by the intensity of Aaron Finch's suddenly rampant team.

Greg Chappell talked about David Warner, a man who has surprised him with honesty, warmth and a concern for others. John Major reflected on the value of the MCC, specifically highlighting the role the club plays abroad. Chappell looked out over this famous ground, applauded the brilliant integration of old architecture and new, and reminded us that WG Grace and Sir Donald Bradman had changed in that very same pavilion and made runs on that very same turf.

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England sure have "ishoos". From afar, it looks as if they are weak at the knees with nerves. Morgan must encourage the players to strut a bit and to boss the game. There is no turning back now. Four years and approaching the summit is a time for inner strength and belief. Cliché that it may be, good players don't become bad players overnight.

June 26, Edgbaston
England's worst nightmare is now into overdrive. In the company of delirious fans, Pakistan relieved New Zealand of their unbeaten record with all the usual touches of their extravagant cricket - fast and skilful bowling, wristspin, and then a kaleidoscope of strokeplay that had their fans rocking in the aisles.

Richards' approval of Babar is matched by his enjoyment of Haris Sohail. Together, these two fine batsmen put the game away with a minimum of fuss, when, frankly, at three down and still needing 128 on an awkward pitch, there might have been a meltdown. Pakistan's pattern of results exactly matches 1992 and they do say that history repeats itself. Oh yes, they do.

For England, as Mike Atherton wrote in the Times, "it's squeaky bum time".