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Feature

England ride their World Cup luck for perfect day that may yet save tomorrow

With nothing less than the future of English cricket at stake, an extraordinary final helped reconnect the masses with the country's summer sport

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
15-Jul-2019
Cricket, bloody hell
At cricket clubs up and down the country - most of which endured a peculiar bout of "cricket stopped play" interruptions at about 5pm on an extraordinary Sunday evening - there's a motto that gets trotted out with wearying familiarity after every duck, every defeat, every jobbing spell of ropey seam-up that contributes to another fabulous waste of a weekend afternoon.
"There's always next week…"
And there always is. For cricketers of pretty much any ability, from the local park to St John's Wood, it's a fact of this extraordinarily time-consuming sport that there's always another contest looming in the fixture list - another chance to make up for your day-to-day blunders, to keep coming back for more, to keep dreaming of that one perfect day that will make it all worthwhile.
But what happens when there really is no tomorrow? When all your yesterdays have been heaped up into a single turn of pitch-and-toss, and it's not merely that you know it, you know that everyone who knows you knows it too?
Welcome to the state of English cricket on the eve of a tournament that simply had to be a success. Welcome to the state of the World Cup final in a contest that simply refused to go quietly into the night.
First, the shock and awe. What scenes! What tension! What bedlam! What sustained waves of hope and despair. What triumphs, what disasters … and what on earth were those two imposters doing, time and time again, in the very same passage of play? Ben Stokes' swipe to the long-on boundary … a six! A catch! A six again as Trent Boult's footing failed him in the most critical of moments … then Stokes' extraordinary quirk of fate with three balls remaining, as a scuffed pull to midwicket was trebled in value by a pinball-style deflection off his own desperate, flailing bat.
These are the details that will be dissected for years to come. Details that leave poor Jimmy Neesham - mere inches from heroism with first ball and then bat - joking (one assumes…) on Twitter that he wishes he'd taken up baking rather than cricket so that he could die fat and happy at the age of 60. Instead, he is condemned to look back in devastation for the rest of a tortured decade, on a match that simply delivered everything but justice to the vanquished.
But after all that disbelief has ebbed away, or hardened in Neesham's case, like scar tissue, into a less painful reminder of the occasion … for the victors, the sweet relief! The shuddering sense of liberation for England, the hosts and, until this edition of the tournament, the most hopeless of World Cup combatants.
Relief on the field, and in the stands. Relief in Trafalgar Square and other public parks around the land, where the masses gathered to be reunited with a summer sport that has forgotten at times in the past 15 years that it belongs to everyone, not just the paying few. And perhaps, most of all, relief in the boardroom at the ECB - roughly in the direction that Neesham's Super Over six would have been heading had the Mound Stand not got in its way, and where the challenge will now be to make good on an extraordinary day when the sport got unquestionably its biggest break in a generation.
For there were two competing narratives squabbling for attention as this summer's main event bubbled to its crescendo. The desire, heartfelt for the most part, that the finest one-day team ever assembled in this country should end those 44 years of hurt and lift the World Cup at the 12th time of asking. But there was also the imperative - urgent and at times overbearing - that, no matter what happened in the final analysis, those very same players had to put on a show to remember.
Well, bingo. Morgan's men have fulfilled their brief with a heroism to which the mere lifting of a trophy cannot fully do justice. Have you been entertained? How could you not be, in the final for the ages, surely the greatest world title decider that has ever been contested, in any sport and any era?
If England got lucky, the ECB got luckier still … of that there is no doubt - just as they got lucky on this same ground two years ago, when England's women transformed the horizons of their sport with what, until Sunday, appeared to be the most stunning World Cup final win imaginable. But we may not know quite how lucky they got until Channel 4 releases its viewing figures from its first day of terrestrial TV coverage since the 2005 Ashes …
***
"Just stop what you're doing and watch this."
"No, really, sod the tennis, and sod your parents' obsession with the tennis, please watch this."
"Please tell me you're watching this…"
"Please…?"
***
The whole day had been a confluence of circumstance from dawn until dusk. Everything came up roses in the end, but it didn't half get a bit thorny along the way
That's not an exact transcript of the texts I exchanged with my wife from about the moment that Stokes and Jos Buttler began to up England's ante - but it's a pretty decent approximation, give or take the odd rolling eye emoji (which still don't translate too well to ESPNcricinfo's written pages).
I'm not proud of coming across as so needy, but in the second decade of the 21st century, being an English cricket lover has long since evolved from casual fandom, to something more akin to Seventh Day Adventism. It's no longer enough simply to be a believer in the sport's supreme virtues - those who know its glories have a duty to proselytise at every opportunity, to assume that those who profess no love for the game are merely lost souls waiting to be converted.
And lo! Somehow, those prayers were answered in the most extraordinary fluke of timing since Stokes' bat-deflected four. At almost the exact moment that the World Cup final was sent to a Super Over, a barely less epic Wimbledon final between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer came to an end after nearly five hours. Suddenly, a wave of adrenalin-fuelled sports-affiliated channel surfers were freed to roam the listings and alight on the most extraordinary climax of an extraordinary sporting day.
The whole day had been a confluence of circumstance from dawn until dusk, from the early morning rain that sheeted down the Lord's slope to be mopped up in a puddle on the Tavern Stand rope, before evaporating into the most glorious of summer days. Everything's come up roses in the end, but it didn't half get a bit thorny along the way.
For there's been an undercurrent of angst throughout this World Cup. Of course, cricket is well used to feeling sorry for itself and fearful of its place in the public's affections, but the helicopter dread has been something else for the past six weeks, like an over-attentive relative by one's sick-bed. Is there too much rain? ("No.") Is the format too boring? ("No.") Have England blown it? ("Nearly, but emphatically no!") Does anyone care? ("Maybe not as many as you'd hoped, but suddenly, more than you think!")
One wonders to what extent the near-suffocating importance of the bigger picture contributed to England's mid-campaign wobble, when their back-to-back defeats to Sri Lanka and Australia left them staring into the abyss? For even in his moment of ultimate triumph, as he joined Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson in England's captaincy pantheon, Eoin Morgan found himself using the phrase "participation levels" in only the second answer of his post-match press conference.
Think about that for a second. There was barely any time for small-talk, no invitation to expand on the day's "amazing scenes", no "cricket, bloody hell", not even a specific reference to the hero of the hour, Ben Stokes. Just a dry-as-toast but achingly valid enquiry as to the health of a sport that has been desperate for attention for a generation, and has now - thanks to his team's efforts - captured the front and back pages of every newspaper in the land.
The enduring pity of this summer's World Cup is that it never had the chance to be the shared occasion that the 2005 Ashes was
That was the World Cup final that soared - a game which started, dare we admit it, with England assuming they'd lucked out on a more pliant opponent than India or Australia would have proved to be, and with the World Cup organisers no doubt ruing the absence of a bigger name to share top billing. But those expectations were swiftly confounded. Suddenly, there were no more tomorrows. All the planning, and plotting, and praying came down to a question of human frailties in the clutch moments - as two nations held their breath.
But what would it have meant for England to fall at the last, to have dribbled out of contention to a chastening 20-run defeat, which seemed entirely plausible in the latter stages of the chase. There's only one frame of reference that can do the occasion justice, and coincidentally, it came on the very last occasion that cricket in the UK was visible beyond its usual confines of the tried, tested and converted.
The final day of the 2005 Ashes at The Oval, of course - then as now a coronation waiting to happen, then as now, a collective freeze on the big stage, as England's top-order was vaporised in a surge of aggression from a pumped-up Antipodean attack.
Journalists can be a cynical bunch at the best of times, let alone the worst of them. But I recall vividly the chat inside the press room at lunch that day, as England - level-pegging on first innings, limped to 127 for 5, with two sessions of the series yawning before them like the mouths of Avernus.
"If we lose this now," said one seasoned hack, "it's going to trigger the greatest public outpouring of grief since Princess Diana's funeral."
Reader. England didn't fail then, and nor did they now - thanks to a clutch of combatants who are surely about to become cricket's first household names since Kevin Pietersen and his ilk all those years ago. But would the nation have genuinely mourned a loss on this occasion, or simply shrugged and walked away?
The enduring pity of this summer's World Cup is that it never had the chance to be the shared occasion that the 2005 Ashes evolved into being. Those that knew of it enjoyed it, those that did not barely noticed. And those that have just been given the most succulent of tasters may find, just as was the case 15 years, that the very thing that has whet their appetite may be about to be whipped from under their noses.
Fifty-over cricket, English cricket's most obsessive priority for the past four years, is set to be relegated to the undercard from 2020 onwards, as the ECB clears the decks for the advent of The Hundred, and a more structured (if no less partial) return to terrestrial TV. But if two things are abundantly clear from Sunday's gripping events at Lord's, it is that cricket in a run-chase scenario is an extraordinarily compelling and accessible version of the sport. And if 12 balls of a Super Over can provide that much drama, there's obviously scope for 200 to be amply satisfying.
But it is also abundantly clear that English cricket just used up a lifetime's supply of luck to lay claim to its one perfect day, and give itself the impetus with which to make a success of its new beginnings. Please, don't mess up the legacy of this achievement, or next time, there really will be no more tomorrows.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @miller_cricket