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A formulaic tournament with twists in its tail

A World Cup front-loaded with predictable games redeemed itself by saving the best for last

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
Key men: Marsh played a superb hand in the final, and Adam Zampa was not a bad shout for Player of the Tournament  •  ICC via Getty Images

Key men: Marsh played a superb hand in the final, and Adam Zampa was not a bad shout for Player of the Tournament  •  ICC via Getty Images

Australia, huh? A team that finds a way.
You have to hand it to them; maybe the hammering at the hands of Jos Buttler and Co really did spark a fuse. Come the semi, come the explosion; come the final, come the annihilation. Did we really give them much chance against Pakistan? Don't think we did. Or was that just a romantic ideal: the Pakistan Dream?
And New Zealand? Surely, Kane Williamson would get one over Aaron Finch…surely, yes? No. It still feels surreal today.
The sight of Mitchell Marsh in his ecstasy was something to behold. The road has not been easy. Geoff's son and Shaun's younger brother had for too long been the nearly man, a cricketer gifted enough to play for Australia here and there in all formats but never quite to conquer one.
On a warm Sunday night, in the unlikely setting of Dubai, Marsh junior laid the ghost of father and brother past and took the Player-of-the-Match trophy in the game that mattered most. He struck the ball with utter clarity, applied demonic eyes to the business of giving the opposition nothing, and made sure he was in there at the end. Job done.
Overcome with emotion his pals charged from dressing room and dugout to throw their arms around him and squeeze tight, just like they had won the T20 World Cup final, which they had. It was all rather charming. Australia under Finch have been a together team, and when Marcus Stoinis was interviewed in the immediate aftermath, he said there was a lot of love going down. Quite so.
In summary, Australia went for it in a way that New Zealand could not. After a sluggish start, Williamson played a sparkler of an innings, as good as you can imagine in this format, and became the third man to make a fifty in the final, from a record 32 balls. The other two are Kumar Sangakkara and Joe Root, a sure sign that the old ways are not ready for the knacker's yard yet. But Williamson was a lone Kiwi ranger. Marsh was to beat him to 50 by a ball; David Warner hit the afterburners and Glenn Maxwell hit anything and everything every which way. In a flash Australia had stolen the game - the batting more powerful, the bowling more steadfast.
If Williamson can be enjoyed as artistic, Marsh might be judged as brutalist. Their contrasting innings perfectly summarised a game that offers many little pieces of cricket's big picture, while reminding us there are myriad ways to thrill its audience.
Not that the tournament was always such a buzz. In fact, there were times during the last month when one wondered whether the ICC T20 World Cup even much liked itself. Mainly predictable games were the order of an event played by 12 teams of vastly different funding, capacity and ability. The good teams were very good; the rest, well, let's just say not so good. The chance of an upset was minimal, and even from afar, the disengaged noted that a tournament in which all the best teams played each other once and the top four cracked on to the denouement would be a better spectacle.
Having said that, who is to argue that exposure doesn't beat a tight finish? Not the Scots, for sure, who found themselves mixing it with both India and Pakistan in the final week of the round-robin stage; or the Namibians, whose pony-tailed David Wiese, gave hints of a fright to all he set embattled eyes upon. The value of the major ICC tournaments to countries eager to grow their cricket is incalculable. One wanted to shine small, positive lights on these part-time professionals, who gamely played up and played the game, attracting applause for their enterprise and admiration for their humility.
Only when the top four finally met in a couple of semi-finals that surprised the bookmakers were the punters gripped till the very last. Seven-eighths of the way through each of those semi-finals, the form horses, England and Pakistan, appeared to have done all that was required of them until two left-handers, each of different build and style, fairly wrenched the prize of a place in the final from the favourites' grasp.
While Matthew Wade was taking guard at the sharp end of the run chase in the Dubai semi, the chap next to me - an eminent television producer from a faraway corner of the world - suggested that Australia must have better wicketkeeper-batters in their midst.
Cue Wade's astonishing burst of activity that climaxed with three consecutive shots of imagination and power that flew high and long into the night air. "Come see the white ball fly!" exclaimed the advertising campaign for World Series Cricket in 1978, and never can it have flown with more impact and inspired more amazement than it did on Thursday night - well, not since Carlos Brathwaite at Eden Gardens anyway. First, Wade scoop-ramped a full-length ball from Shaheen Shah Afridi way over fine leg, then he smashed a length ball into the middle tier of the not inconsiderable Dubai International Stadium, before providing the coup de grace by repeating the scoop/ramp of two balls earlier and immediately lifting his arms to the sky like a boxer whose knockout blow had ended the thing once and for all. Which it had. And guess who was commentating. Ian Bishop didn't say it, but he might have done.
The night before, in Abu Dhabi, Jimmy Neesham had found a willing partner in Darryl Mitchell to nick the game off England. And how. It will be a match long remembered by English supporters for overs number 16 and 17. Sixteen was bowled by Liam Livingstone - a revelation incidentally, with his mixed bag of spin. It claimed a wicket, cost three runs and won the game for his team. Except, it didn't.
The 17th was bowled by Chris Jordan and cost 23, which all but won New Zealand the match. It included Jonny Bairstow's now viral boundary attempt to save a six and orchestrate a miracle catch but this time the script was written in favour of Black Caps, not red or blue, and Neesham simply plundered the hapless Jordan. Rider here: Jordan is a man for the trenches, one you want among your number any day, and not once in any of the post-match interviews did Eoin Morgan or Chris Silverwood refer to the 17th over or mention Jordan's name, a sign of solidarity if ever there was one.
These were among the most thrilling moments of the month, perhaps the most memorable of which was Scotland's win over Bangladesh right at the start of the preliminary round, in Oman. You've got to love the Scots for their utter commitment and ongoing sense of perspective. They play good cricket, neither getting ahead of themselves nor lagging behind. Bangladesh, on the other hand, never recovered. Sure, there were some near misses but to finish without a win in the Super 12s belied their recent form at home and suggested little in the way of progression.
Sri Lanka suggested they had advanced on most occasions when they stepped into the breach. Good bowling, sharper fielding, improved batting - the only way looked to be up. Few countries are better rewarded by investment in youth; after a lull in international achievement, the trick will be to sort out a more competitive domestic structure and to suitably reward the players on performance not potential.
Cricket teams are shifting, protean creatures - or should be - and those that fail to perform have tended to pay the price of hanging on to their past. After a glorious run that stretched back to the dynamic win in Sri Lanka in 2012 and reached its crescendo with Ian Bishop's memorably joyous scream: "Carlos Brathwaite… remember the name!" in Kolkata five years ago, the West Indies selectors had hung on a tad too long. Their team's final match in the tournament was more a fly-by for the retiring Dwayne Bravo and soon-to-be-retiring Chris Gayle than the summary of a realistic attempt at the title.
A word on Gayle, whose contribution to all formats of cricket has been extraordinary. Of course he is a T20 superhero, a player who can fill a ground with mighty deeds and the cut of his jib. But his record across the board bears scrutiny - 7214 Test match runs at 42.18 with 15 hundreds. Add 25 ODI hundreds and two more in T20Is and you get the picture.
Here is a revealing quote from the man himself: "It is instinct... We premeditate at times, but most of those things are instinct. When a fast bowler runs in to me, my breathing is controlled. So you keep a still head, slow down your breathing. Sometimes I actually hold my breath, so I can be as still and well balanced as possible. If you get too excited, you overreact more, and with the adrenalin, you lose focus quickly." In summary, the Universe Boss has thought this through. It will be a wrench when he really does put away that railway sleeper of a bat: the game is better for such singular style.
No country is more subject to a shifting, protean landscape than South Africa, and to lose just one game - to the eventual champions - and be out of the tournament on net run rate was a wretched thing. In beating England in Sharjah, Temba Bavuma's men once again proved the heart of the matter: if you truly care about the land of your birth, you will play unconditionally for its place in the world order of things. Those at the helm need to start doing the math, however. A racier pursuit of Bangladesh's meagre 84 in Abu Dhabi might have turned the whole event on its head.
Much has been written and said about India's early exit. From this distance, it looked like the team had played too much cricket in the many months previous and therefore failed to click into the gear that had brought them so much success in that time. With this game, you think you are on automatic pilot until you aren't. Then, when consciously piloting yourself, you are dependent on luck, or the lack of it, and the opposition's performance. Which is where the phrase "control the controllables" sort of comes from. Sometimes this game just doesn't go your way.
England thought they had that old cliché covered by the analytics but cricket said, "Uh huh, there is a bit more to me than that." The Jason Roy injury was nothing short of cruel but sport is cruel. Ask South Africa. Or New Zealand. Or Pakistan, who so gloriously beat India at the beginning but fell to Australia at the end. Would their supporters have taken those two results if offered them? Maybe.
There is no one quite like Babar Azam at the wicket and no one quite like Afridi running in to it. Buttler can do the pyrotechnics and Jofra Archer - when fit - the sprint to the crease; as can, say, Rohit Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah, if with a different step, but none of them were there in the game that mattered, which is all that matters. Warner was there and was voted Player of the Tournament - a vote for class over form if ever there was one. But with respect for form and for Warner, my vote would have gone to Adam Zampa, who has sometimes said that he plays on being underrated. Clever fellow; it clearly works.
Wristspin was very much the thing in the UAE. The pitches were a little slow and in Sharjah, low on bounce as well. The vogue is to bowl the ball "into" the pitch and hope it stays there awhile, stopping the free flow of the batter's strokes. Of the top six spinners among the wicket-takers, five were wristspinners, and the six-hitting fest that was predicted never quite materialised - though Williamson, Warner and Marsh had a crack at it in the final.
The yorker became harder than ever to bowl as batters set themselves low and ready to scoop, ramp and reverse pretty much anything that took their eye. Witness Wade in that semi-final. Afridi was not far out with either ball that was scooped: a tad short of yorker length with the first; a tad full with the second. Both disappeared over Wade's shoulder from the middle of the bat. Thus, the bowler is forced to try something different, and bingo, the batter wins.
The pitch for the final was a really good one, prepared by an Aussie for the Aussies, a cynic might say. I'd just say that Toby Lumsden is a damn good curator of cricket pitches, and given the number of matches played at the Dubai International Stadium these past two months, he might have won a Player-of-the-Match award or two himself. Yes, the pitch is easier to bat on in the second innings, when moisture from the evening air settles on the wicket and allows the ball to slide onto the bat. More than two-thirds of the matches were won by the side batting second, which tells you these are very good tosses to win.
But to chase is to win in T20 - unless the ball is moving dramatically sideways and/or the bounce is unreasonably low. Indeed, the shorter the game, the lower the common denominator, the easier the chase. Let's face it, if you know what you need and you adopt the philosophy that you will not be bowled out in the overs available, the mindset is pretty straightforward.
Arguably this edition of the T20 World Cup was a little too formulaic, probably because the ball didn't move sideways. Players tend to work out the game quickly and did so here to good effect. They have also had an edition and a half of the IPL to watch and learn about cricket in the UAE.
One concern that came from the many matches played daily over the past month is that the gap between good and not so good is increasing. In a year's time, Australian conditions will tell us more about this. It needs watching, because cricket cannot do without a broad canvas of teams, players and approaches. You can have all the formats in all the world but you need the quality and the width.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator