As the fourth six sailed deep into the Kolkata night and on into legend, Ben Stokes fell to one knee, bereft, it seemed, and devastatingly, brutally alone, as West Indies charged and cavorted deliriously, spurred on to glory, their captain told us, by journalistic slights and high-handed administrators.
Was this team spirit like in the fabled days when from the disparate islands a greater collective was forged? And what about England: did they fold back into their own private thoughts, their own thwarted ambitions, just a collection of individuals thrown together by their jobs?
It would be all too facile and predictable to trot out that dog-eared adage of former Spurs and Barcelona footballer Steve Archibald: "Team spirit is an illusion glimpsed in the aftermath of victory."
Is that really the case? Is it not, in fact, wholly more revealing of the person who utters it, indicative of the speaker's individualist outlook, their own detachment from, and inability to buy into, "the collective"?
Perhaps the problem partly lies with the term "spirit" - indeed, in one of four pieces on this site that mention the Archibald line, all with some degree of scepticism, Ed Smith suggests it would be better replaced with "culture". In secular-rational societies, "spirit" carries negative connotations, a thing of superstition, lacking adequate scientific definition or objective existence. But then no one's quite sure what consciousness is, its "thinghood" and materiality still largely mysterious, although no one doubts it exists.
But the main issue with Archibald's assertion is that he conflates team spirit with euphoria. It stands to reason that a group whose very existence and purpose is to participate in competitive sport will have its mood greatly dictated by the result. Winning matches together is bound to strengthen bonds. But you could equally ask: how is it even possible to win consistently without team spirit?
A 2012 paper from Dutch psychologists Gert Jan-Pepping and Erik J Timmermans asserts that during team-sport performance (rather than merely after winning) the hormone/neurotransmitter oxytocin is released, facilitating "pro-social behaviours" such as empathy, trust, generosity, altruism and cooperation.
A review of the paper in the Lancet elaborates:
"An emotional display by one player can inspire a similar mood in teammates, and the team's overall disposition can motivate individual performance. This convergence of mood, or emotional contagion, is a key element in team unity. Measuring a player's hormone levels during competition is a logistical challenge, but [studies] show that, in controlled settings, oxytocin affects processes central to emotional contagion and social perception... Reading emotions such as fear or determination in other players can help athletes make quick decisions about their own actions, and oxytocin seems to be a key biological component for processing these social cues".
If psychology is, as the saying goes, biology before it's properly understood, then these findings would establish a material basis for the ineffable togetherness of "team spirit". Many experts understand consciousness as an incorporeal thing deriving from material processes, and team spirit might be the same. Indeed, both consciousness and team spirit are examples of entities formed not as the sum of the properties of the component parts, but the result of the interaction between those parts - for the brain, the complex, ever-changing firing of trillions of synaptic connections; for a cricket team, thousands of acts of staying together and harmony-building.
In this sense, all teams are more than the sum of their parts. The team is also an "individual", inasmuch as: (1) you can extract one of its component parts without necessarily altering the nature of the whole (much as with institutions that change their staff); (2) the team can causally affect the parts of which it is composed (as described above, when the team's "overall disposition can motivate individual performance", causing players to dig deep or otherwise); and (3) the team can interact with other entities at the same scale (you can be overawed by another team's spirit).
Many experts understand consciousness as an incorporeal thing deriving from material processes, and team spirit might be the same
Although fluctuating, team spirit must pre-exist the moment of victory, which then augments or cements it. It waxes and wanes through time and must be vigilantly maintained, much as with any long-term social relationship. A family, say. You rally round.
"I remember getting the medal," Stokes told the Telegraph last week, "and thinking it's just a runners-up medal. You don't want it. You want the winner's medal, but then later we had two hours in the changing room and all the lads had medals around their neck and we were saying nobody can take this moment away from us. We played for our country in a World Cup final. Let's be proud of that".
The logical flipside of Archibald's claim would be that there is never team spirit in defeat, which for the England team gathering themselves together amidst the desolation of Kolkata might border on the offensive. Nevertheless, the tendency to doubt the existence of team spirit is particularly strong in England, where the means of expressing togetherness have often been riddled with inhibitions, where doing crazy things like celebrating wickets was, until recently, frowned upon. Stiff upper lip. For instance, Ed Smith dismisses several of the acts and gestures Pepping and Timmermans would call "prosocial cues" as "kindly but showy irrelevances".
In similarly sceptical spirit, another former Cambridge University batsman, the ex-Glamorgan and England opener Steve James, pins his Archibaldism to the mast, even if, he says, Archibald's adage "has become a hackneyed cliché. But then cricket is essentially an individual sport played in a team environment".
Yet isn't that itself something of a cliché? True, cricket assigns individual stats for batting and bowling, but neither is a strictly individual undertaking. Players take catches, look after the ball, suggest field changes that buy you wickets. One partner recommends run-scoring options, another wears down the opposition's star bowler, allowing you to flourish.
And then there's the third discipline, fielding, "a true test of players sacrificing themselves for the interest of the team," said Steve Waugh, "because it's the only facet of the game where you don't get statistically rewarded for your efforts". Is there a more selfless fielder than Stokes?
Even if team spirit is not felt in all corners of the dressing room in quite the same way, to quite the same degree, that doesn't mean it's a myth or a fantasy. Mutual care for those enduring tough times, the look of over-my-dead-body determination as a game slips away, singing not only when you're winning - all as real as a bruise on the inside thigh. Is it fragile? Perhaps. Precarious? Certainly. Susceptible to a sudden collapse? Without doubt. Yet just because no one has ever seen or touched something, that doesn't make it illusory.
Scott Oliver tweets here