Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator
WI v ENG (1)
IND v AUS (1)
WI v IRE (EME) (1)
Legends League (2)
Abu Dhabi T10 (2)
IND v ENG (W-A) (1)
SA v BAN (W) (1)
July 14th, 2019: the day England won the men's cricket World Cup, Lewis Hamilton won the British Grand Prix, and Novak Djokovic squeaked past Roger Federer - who nervously relinquished two match points - in the longest Wimbledon final ever played. I am one of 28,000 people who can say they were there - at Lord's that is, watching one of the most astonishing cricket matches ever played.
This week, England have the chance to double up by winning the T20 World Cup as well and become the first team to hold both trophies at the same time. It is a staggering turnaround from the desultory performance at the 50-over World Cup in Australia seven years ago.
In Simon Hughes' excellent and often moving new film, The Greatest Game, which reflects on England's famous win, there is a moment right at the denouement - a moment watched by much of the UK and a fair chunk of the global cricketing firmament - when Mark Wood, the non-striker and England's last man standing, is shown running out to the pitch for the final ball of the tournament. On camera, he explains: "I ran out there, like, if I'm warmed up, I'll be ready to sprint because that's all I'm gonna do. I said to Ben, 'Right mate, I'm just gonna run, but honestly, his eyes were just so glazed…'" Ben Stokes remembers it differently. "I told him what I'm doing, he knew the exact plan."
So now we know. In the unbearably tense moments before the last ball of the 2019 World Cup final, from which England needed two runs to beat New Zealand, there was a plan. Batting had not been easy for either team but Stokes, who was not far from wasted after two hours at the crease, had transcended the pitch and mastered the opponent. He was 83 not out; in short, he was the game… and he had a plan.
Stokes' stripping back of this extraordinary situation explains a rare quality in anyone, let alone the man upon whom victory and the Cup depended: the ability to make the right decision under extreme pressure. He figured that an attempt to go for the boundary was compromised by the level of risk; instead, with the fielders back as far as they could go, he chose to knock the ball into the vast space wide of mid-on and sprint the two that were required. Such was his focus, and such is the power of adrenaline, that he timed the ball too sweetly, which brought the boundary rider, Jimmy Neesham, into play. Neesham was equal to the herculean task of a clean pick up and accurate throw. Wood, Stokes' last partner, barely made the frame, never mind the popping crease.
The match was tied. Stokes was furious with himself. Trent Boult's final ball had been a knee-high full toss that Stokes would usually plant into the stand, but it might have been a perfect yorker. A gentle pat to deep mid-on was the very least of his capabilities, which makes the decision he took all the more remarkable. Not only was it the right decision, to search for two, not four or six, it was a decision made with both humility and clarity at a time of "desperation", as Eoin Morgan was later to call it.
The film uses a number of the players and digs deep into the resource of their minds for the earthy stuff that makes these documentaries better than a highlight reel. Hughes is a natural journalist, with a turn for asking personal questions in an easy manner. He has written for most of the broadsheets, as we once knew them, is the author of numerous books, the best of which, A Lot of Hard Yakka, is a cracking read, and worked as something of an oracle as the Analyst on Channel 4's award-winning coverage of cricket in the UK between 1999 and 2005. Like yours truly, he then switched to Channel 5's highlights coverage of all England's home matches but was unkindly and unceremoniously dumped from the final two years of the network's relationship with the game. Since then, he has forged on as a freelance, a life that included editing the Cricketer magazine for a while. Bravo him.
The Greatest Game traces the backstory of a number of key England cricket people who had skin in the tournament, not least Andrew Strauss, the former captain, who made the most of his job as managing director of England cricket by appointing Morgan captain in the short forms of the game, and Trevor Bayliss, a straight-talking Australian, coach in all forms. Their mission was to turn England's white-ball cricket from a mess when Strauss took over in the spring of 2015 into the miracle that took place at Lord's in 2019. They did, and how!
After an inconsistent start to the tournament, England, the favourites, were in danger of an early exit as they headed to Edgbaston for the must-win group game against India. Morgan called a meeting. "In teams I'd previously played [in], the guys worried about telling the truth in front of each other. But if you don't have that trust within a team, you can't move past the weight everyone is carrying." In this case, they were to discover, the weight was anxiety and the consequent fear of failure. With that collective and shared admission came a return to the free spirit that had characterised their play since Strauss had taken the reins and encouraged Morgan to follow his instincts. Jonny Bairstow made a brilliant hundred and England beat India by 31 runs.
In the semi-final against Australia, they were back at Edgbaston and again won comfortably. There was no fear of failure now; in fact, there was an argument they had gone too gung-ho in the other direction. Bayliss took a dim view of the fancy celebrations and immediately we cut to the dressing room to watch him tell the blokes to pull their heads in. "I'll put my Australian cap on now and tell you why Australia thinks England don't win finals. You win a semi-final and think you've won it. We haven't won anything yet. The next game is the most important one, so let's make sure we're 100% for that." The camera then holds a tight shot on Stokes: "S***, yeah, good point," he says, with a hint of guilt.
Strauss stood down from the job when his widely admired wife, Ruth, became seriously ill with a rare cancer. She was to die at home in Australia, with both her families alongside her, immediately after Christmas 2018. This meant that Strauss watched the tournament in 2019 almost tangentially, and one imagines he will always wish Ruth had been there to share the winning moment with him. The close-up shots of his face as he explains some of the narrative - being husband and father as the world around this tight family was caving in, and all the while, boss of the England cricket teams - are, if not excruciating, then certainly edgy. Hughes knows him well; the Strauss synergy in this film is a real strength.
Others who give us a great deal are Morgan and Bayliss. Stokes, of course ("I've always said the people in sport... if they say they're not nervous about a big occasion, then they're talking out their a***. How you handle nerves is the thing that counts"). Bairstow, who lost his father when he was eight years old, and whose mum, Janet, suffered from breast cancer ("I'd describe my character a someone who doesn't take no for an answer. Resilience is embedded and ingrained in the family"). Kane Williamson, New Zealand's captain, whose calm appraisals waste no words. And Adil Rashid, who we come to find charming and informative.
Act one: Tight game from first to last on an awkward pitch, scores tied. Among the many scenes that confirmed the Mark Twain proverb about truth being stranger than fiction was Boult, as safe a catcher in the deep as there is, stepping on the boundary rope in the penultimate over when catching Stokes.
Stokes: "You've got a sense as a batter, you just know as soon as you've hit it that it's six or out. As soon as I hit that, I knew I was out." Which he wasn't. Over to Ian Smith, the former New Zealand wicketkeeper turned commentator and the world's best caller of live action, whose heart was in his mouth as the ball hung in the London sky - "Now then… is this it… He's got it!!"
Morgan: "I thought, 'We're really f***ed.'"
Pause, as we all watch Boult stumble backwards and step on the boundary.
Smith again: "Awrrgghh, you're kidding me. It's six!"
Morgan: "I could not believe it. That just does not happen."
Act two: The last over. Fifteen runs required off six balls, bowled by guess who? Boult. Over to Strauss.
"It was just too much. I couldn't see how we were going to do this."
It began with two dot balls as Stokes turned down two singles that led us all to squirm. Fifteen needed off four now. After which he thumped the next one high into the grandstand for six, followed by another six runs - for overthrows when the ball ricocheted off Stokes' bat to the pavilion boundary as he dived to make his ground for the second run.
Smith: "I do not believe what I've just seen."
Three now needed off two. Stokes goes big and mishits, Rashid is run out in the knowledge that whatever the sacrifice, Stokes has to get back on strike. Which is when Wood arrives, England nine wickets down, one ball left, two to win. He didn't make it.
Act three: The Super Over, which was tied too. The England boys didn't win the match or its follow-up, they won the boundary count. The Black Caps were screwed by a clause in the playing conditions - talk about the devil being in the detail - saying that if the winners couldn't be decided by the Super Over, it would come down to which team had hit more boundaries. Well, England hit 26 to New Zealand's 17: the reward of derring-do, I suppose. Nobody knew this. I was in the Lord's committee room with a senior fellow from the ICC and he didn't have the faintest, so he got on the blower to an academic statto type who told him. Then the players and crowd found out, after which all hell was unleashed upon Williamson's team.
Those Black Caps will be forever in our hearts for the way they coped. So too Morgan for the way he acknowledged their miserable luck and the part they had played in a famous day. Morgan is a great friend of New Zealand and he was at ease offering their players his hand. Even Federer, Djokovic and Hamilton couldn't match this level of emotional drama, and they do it pretty well.
My memory of the Super Over is sparked by the part played in it by Jofra Archer. England batted first and made 15. As I say, none of us knew that New Zealand could make 15 and England would still win. I wonder if Archer did. When he tapped Morgan on the shoulder before England went out on the field, he said, "It's me, isn't it?" Morgan replied, "Yes mate, it's you." First World Cup, 14 ODIs total in his career, first month or two as an England cricketer out of Barbados. His mother was terrified for him. He didn't bowl it very well, but as Morgan says, "I could see a couple of the bowlers and they weren't looking me in the eye." The fact is, Archer bowled it, and after the worst start - wide first ball, eight off the next two - he managed to hold Neesham and Martin Guptill to five from four balls.
It is here that I have my gripe with Mr Hughes. The fifth ball of the over doesn't make the edit. It was not a ball of any note but it was worth a crucial run and at no stage is it mentioned. Nor is there a snapshot of the equation remaining at any time in the over. I'll remind you myself: two are needed from the final ball, one to tie - same as at the end of the 50 overs. The ball goes to Jason Roy at midwicket, who returns it to Jos Buttler to beat the sprinting Guptill. The rest is history. Thrilling history.
New Zealand made 15. Super Over tied. England hit 26 boundaries. (Hughes and his team should have explained that formula too.) England win the World Cup. At last.
It's a terrific watch, atmospheric and revealing. Ashley Gething, the highly rated director whose portfolio includes television and film work with such luminaries as Professor Brian Cox and Simon Schama, brings a detached and forensic eye to the insight we had not heard or seen, and the personalities we did not know. Best of all, after three years on the job he has given us an affirmation of 50-over cricket in this age of sniping at a game that has been a backdrop to many of our lives. If the ICC does anything, it should ring-fence this format, keep it for World Cups and market the hell out of its special qualities. The ebb and flow, high and low of this memorable and fortuitous day at Lord's is testament to that idea.