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Mark Nicholas

The man from Tauranga and the one from Rush

Which one will end up holding the trophy come Sunday evening?

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
Two men, one mission and one prize - the greatest prize, to be claimed on the grandest stage. Whether it is Eoin Morgan or Kane Williamson who lifts the World Cup at Lord's on Sunday, the moment will live with that man forever. It will be much the same for he who loses. You cannot help but wonder if either of them truly expected to be there. We all hope, for hope is an essential in the rhythm of life, but did they expect? Morgan maybe; Williamson maybe not. Virat Kohli will have expected. Imagine the regret following his every step right now.
The captains of England and New Zealand are fine men, each inspired by Brendon McCullum's look at life. Williamson, an introvert, opened his eyes to McCullum's sense of adventure. Morgan invited McCullum to be best man at his wedding after a period of friendship that included the horses, the tables, and the wine list. McCullum had spoken for the world after the passing of Phillip Hughes and encouraged his team to see cricket as a pleasure that enhanced life, rather than as life itself. Morgan identified with this wider sense of who we are and why we do as we do. Williamson eagerly bought in and has been richly rewarded.
WATCH on Hotstar (INDIA ONLY) - Williamson's 67 against India
Williamson's first reaction was to take himself and the game less seriously, an attitude that serves both victory and defeat. In fact, his adoption of McCullum's ideology has allowed him to wear a coat of many more colours than even he might have imagined. His imprint on the semi-final against India was that of both master tactician and complete batsman. While Kohli fretted and strutted - heart on sleeve, mind in overdrive - Williamson simply stayed in the game, first with his bat and then with his bowlers and fielders. His moves were stripped back to the game's bare parts in a kind of cricketing minimalism that was easy to understand and admire. Kohli's were louder, which is not to say they were any less good, but it is not Kohli's way to fly beneath the radar. The juxtaposition of these two extraordinary cricketers could hardly have been more stark.
Morgan is a man of great heart and no little humour. He leads first by example and then by intuition. There is something of the poker player in him, an opponent who gives nothing away bar the smile that accompanies his public face and a narrow eye until the umpire calls time. He sees the game early and reacts quickly. He is umbilically attached to his philosophy, never wavering from the belief that all things are possible if everyone is in. When Alex Hales self-destructed in the weeks before the tournament, Morgan said, "Alex's actions have shown complete disregard for our values. This has created a lack of trust between him and the team." And with that, Hales was gone.
The players will follow their Irishman to the ends of the earth. Witness Chris Woakes, a cricketer from the shires, obviously empowered: "Eoin is cool as ice... he just keeps everything simple and doesn't change his emotions, which, in the heat of battle, helps to keep your mind clear. He has decided that was the way this team should play, and everybody believes in him and speaks about him in the same fashion. He's just a great bloke off the field and the same on it." None of us would mind that on our headstone.
Williamson is widely admired and much sought after. His cricket is pure and his methods based on sound thinking and long-established foundations. He is like an expensive watch that has at its core an intricate mechanism that guarantees reliability and longevity. His batting ticks over with barely more than a nod to the aesthetics and certainly no histrionics. To him, drama is a play and miss, and rare as hen's teeth. He is a fellow who has 30 runs when you think he has 15, and 90 when you have just applauded 50.
In the Edgbaston chase against South Africa that went to the last over, he premeditated Andile Phehlukwayo's slower offcutter and pumped it into the stands as if it were net practice. Next ball he ushered wide of point to seal the deal. In the semi-final against India, he resisted both feisty opponent and untrustworthy pitch: there was a straight drive to remember and that was about it. The 67 runs in 95 balls were precious but he barely made mention of them later, as if they were nothing outside of duty. Actually more than one sceptic thought he might have misjudged the innings, in that it set the New Zealand bar too low. Wrong. Williamson is a man who knows the value of all things cricket and treats them with respect. This takes immense courage - after all, anyone can go shot-making, get it wrong and shrug his shoulders at the unfairness of the world. It is the taking of responsibility that separates the great from the good. We may never know for sure but we can assume, given the occasion, that he rates that innings among his best.
Morgan played one of the most glorified knocks of the tournament, a blaze of six-hitting that humiliated Afghanistan. Seventeen sixes he struck, as if he were one of those machines that pumps balls into the sky at catching practice.
WATCH on Hotstar (INDIA ONLY) - Morgan's blazing 148 v Afghanistan
He is a remarkable batsman, uncertain in technique but unwavering with intent. The Australians bombed him with short balls, but ducking, swaying and occasionally flip-flapping, he brushed them aside. Once, when Pat Cummins finally pitched up, he drove the ball over mid-off to the boundary, as if to say, "You're wasting your time, matey, we've got you by the proverbials and we're not letting go." In fact, in a semi-final performance of awesome precision, power and confidence, Morgan and England looked every inch what they are and always have been - England's best ever team and short favourites for the trophy.
It is well documented that four years ago, after embarrassment in the 2015 World Cup, Morgan resolved to do things very differently. Andrew Strauss, then director of England cricket, encouraged free spirit, bright play and high ambition - an ethos he reduced on television on Thursday before the run chase to "See ball, hit ball" - and Morgan was all over it.
The mountain has been climbed and here we are, moments before the last steps to the summit, with England acclaimed as the most exciting one-day team in the world. The seal on four years of resolve and high-level achievement will be the glittering World Cup trophy. Morgan has no doubt whatsoever that the summit will be achieved and that trophy claimed. It is this unwavering resolve that sets him apart.
Two very different men, then. Williamson is out of Tauranga Boys College in the Bay of Plenty. His first coach, Pacey Depina, described him as having "a thirst to be phenomenal - but not at anyone else's expense". He pulled it off, making many friends and 40 hundreds before he left the place. Morgan is out of the Catholic University School in Rush, where the sport of hurling honed the grip and strike that allows him to sweep and, particularly, reverse-sweep with such accuracy and power. He briefly attended Dulwich College in South London and from there came the desire to play cricket for England. What a journey across two lands and very different cultures that became. The boy "Morgs" has done very well.
There will, of course, be a winner and loser. It is worth noting that both men will honour the game with modesty and respect, whatever the result of their day. Losing is intense and hard to bear - heartbreaking even, as described by Kohli on Thursday. Winning is the lightness of being, the fulfilment of dreams, the satisfaction of a campaign well thought through and beautifully finished. We will witness the thrill of victory and the pain of defeat and know that both men will cope with their fate and acknowledge the other for his success. The match is blessed to have them at a time in this world when the generosity of spirit goes a long way. A man from Tauranga and another from Rush. Who is it to be?

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK