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Match Analysis

Time stops on England to deny perfect ending

In a big final, England slowed the game to the tempo that their captain had demanded, they had the trophy winking at them from the sidelines, and then...

The legend of Eden Gardens looms over all first-time visitors to the mightiest stadium in Asia. You can have revelled in all the glories and rolled your eyes at all its quirks, but nothing quite prepares you for the shabby magnificence of the venue.
Much like the city for which it forms such a towering and iconic presence, the old lady creaks under the weight of its own history, yet still finds a way to absorb new additions to the annals, to produce tales that resonate down the ages as people turn to one another and sigh, "ah yes, Calcutta …"
And so it proved, at the end of an evening that throbbed with instant history, when Ben Stokes sunk to his haunches, his face as red with heat and emotion as the shirt with which he mopped his brow. No amount of acclimatisation, or visualisation, or hours of dedication in the nets, could have prepared Stokes - or any other cricketer for that matter - for the shockwaves that poured forth from the tailor-made bat of Carlos Brathwaite.
Brathwaite's final onslaught ("remember the name!" came the commentary-box cry) was as brutal and immersing as the wall of heat and wetness that seems built into the Kolkata air. It was, quite literally, breathtaking, and the more Stokes thought about the implications, the more the atmosphere drowned him. By the time of that final contemptuous swing over deep midwicket, England's designated death bowler had long since abandoned the thrash of panic and had moved directly to blank acceptance.
England, to be fair, have learned an awful lot about what that takes, even in the space of a three-week campaign. Each of their four victories upto the semi-final called upon a range of survival skills that no team can know they possess until they are challenged
No blame could be apportioned - none would have been appropriate in any circumstances, really, given how far and how high England's rebooted white-ball team had flown in the past three weeks. And yet, they had long had an inkling that they were in line for an occasion like this, at some stage of their voyage of discovery. Their young and adaptable team had turned up, in the words of Jason Roy, to play in front of "100,000 people in a World Cup final" with - hopefully - not a care in the world.
However, not even their captain, Eoin Morgan - once of Kolkata Knight Riders, and a man who had famously called for England to "embrace the naivety" in their opening rounds - could quite dare to let his players take the field with eyes wide shut.
"It's not just another game," Morgan had cautioned on the eve of the match. "Tomorrow everything will feel a little bit rushed to start with, but it is important we are in the right frame of mind to slow it down when needed." His words would prove agonisingly prophetic as the contest began to unfold.
The warning signs were there from the moment England began their warm-ups. Attempting to pretend that this is just another game isn't really an option when your opponents are already deep into their celebrations - or, as it was on this occasion, sharing in those of the gleeful West Indies women's team, whose stunning dispatching of the three-times champions Australia was a mic-dropping hint as to the focus within their combined camps.
And life didn't get any less full-on after that. The sweltering night, the packed house, the corridor of pyrotechnics that guided the players out for the anthems. These are the experiences which the West Indies players, by and large, have come to accept as commonplace. After all, the one true difference between the IPL and English T20 cricket isn't the skill that comes to the fore - the likes of Buttler, Root and Roy prove beyond doubt that talent isn't an issue - it is the situational experience that comes with asked to be heroes on a daily basis.
England, to be fair, have learned an awful lot about what that takes, even in the space of a three-week campaign. Each of their four victories up to and including the semi-final - and even their opening-night crunching by Chris Gayle - called upon a range of survival skills that no team can know they possess until they are challenged: a head for heights in the thrilling run-chase against South Africa; a stomach for the fight as Afghanistan threatened in a low-scoring tavern-brawl; a steady aim as Sri Lanka's batsmen roared back into contention in Delhi.
After all of those tests of character, everything seemed to have clicked during England's hugely impressive defeat of New Zealand, only for it to unravel just enough in the final. The loss of the toss, and the obligation to set the tempo against a team with no apparent upper limit, was doubtless a contributory factor. Nevertheless England approached their innings as if tumbling down a flight of stairs. They still made it to the bottom, just without the dignity they might have anticipated when first setting foot on the landing.
Morgan called the batting "terrible" - and he, alas, would know, after a gruesome end to his own formless campaign - but it was Roy's frantic two-ball duck that seemed to have set the agenda for England's efforts. Like Brendon McCullum in last year's World Cup final, the notion of playing a good-length ball on merit proved anathema when there was momentum to be established, and like New Zealand on that occasion, such a blow to the solar plexus proved too winding to allow a complete recovery.
It was the right approach to take, but it had the wrong upshot. In fact, for those first five overs of discombobulation, only one recent contest between England and West Indies could compare - the infamous Stanford showdown of November 2008, when the islanders eyed the prize and secured it with the aplomb of natural showmen.
Roy's trudge back to the pavilion, at a pace reminiscent of Inzamam-ul-Haq, with his helmet half-removed and his bat upside-down in his limp hands, was a picture of conquered dejection. Nine balls later, Alex Hales echoed that agonised self-admonishment after clipping a half-tracker to short fine-leg. And when Morgan came and went for 5, stiffly accepting his fate like a guilty verdict in the dock, England were 23 for 3, and free-falling.
But then there was Joe Root. There's always Root, puncturing the gloom with a back-foot drive through the covers, followed by the most sweetly forceful nurdle through the gap at wide mid-on - the sort of shot that fails to fully register because it feels as though you've been conned. And, briefly, there was Jos Buttler - beast mode on mute this time out as he reverted to the single-pinching that had kept England's ambitions on course in the South Africa epic.
But Buttler, being Buttler, couldn't help but smack three sixes into the mix, including two in two balls to ignite England's ambitions for the second ten overs of their innings, and suddenly it was clear what Morgan had meant in his pre-match comments. Despite the thickness of the air and the fervour of the crowd and their opponents, there was still a sense that England could regain control, by taking deep breaths and trusting themselves to see it through.
And so it was, when Buttler picked out deep midwicket in the pursuit of another boundary - an occupational hazard even in the midst of a T20 crisis - his departure was beaten but relatively upbeat, displaying the air of a mission rejoined as he punched gloves with the incoming Stokes before pausing at the boundary's edge to collect his spare bat - a symbol, perhaps, of England's desire to bat long, even if their execution was proving wanting.
The denouement of the innings, however, proved to be a reversion to the chaos that had launched it. Stokes seemed too bewildered to be disappointed as he left, after getting in a tangle against Dwayne Bravo and lobbing a leading edge to point, while Moeen Ali accepted his leg-side strangle with a shrug and returned whence he came in the dug-out.
But it was Root, inevitably Root, whose departure was the body blow. Debates have been raging all tournament long about the relative merits of England's star batsman and India's modern icon Virat Kohli (and the greatest point of comparison was still yet to come) but the straight-lined superlatives of each player are what so clearly set them apart from the pack. Root's 54 from 36 balls was another unhurried masterpiece, underwritten with a diet of easy singles and stamped with seven smooth injections of class.
The purity of his angles meant he had no need for cutesy dinks and shovels, and so, inevitably, he fell to one all the same. Had Root's attempted flick to leg come off, as a similar moment of outrage against South Africa had sailed for six over third man, he would have been hailed for his daring, and for seizing back the initiative after the loss of two quick wickets in three balls - instead, with that tally now at three in four, the moment only deepened England's mire.
Had Root's attempted flick to leg come off, as a similar moment of outrage against South Africa had sailed for six over third man, he would have been hailed for his daring
This was "no consequences cricket" boiled down to its barest essence - the costliest shot at Eden Gardens since Mike Gatting's reverse sweep in the 1987 World Cup final, claimed some, and yet such recriminations are pointless if you expect your players to back their instincts. Root is hardly the type of player to retort with "it's just the way I play" - in fact, his departing volley of invective at the Champion-dancing West Indians was significantly spicier than that - but somewhere on a golf course in his state of semi-retirement, a certain former England batsman would doubtless say it for him.
But even a half-completed rebuild was better than none at all, for England's stumble towards a total of 155 for 9 - 40 below par, in Morgan's estimation - was still more than any side had previously managed to chase in a World T20 final. And what followed was nothing short of extraordinary, as Morgan - displaying the sharp mind that his frail batting could not replicate - set his team to slow the game almost to a standstill, and tossed Root of all people the ball for the second Powerplay over.
The impact was electric, and it galvanised a crowd that would finish the night as partisan West Indians but who, for three critical overs, were willing to farm out their support to the team that was gamely reigniting the contest. A first-ball lollipop, smacked unerringly to Stokes at long-off; a second-ball flap, uneasily picking the gap behind point; a third-ball flog, as Gayle of all people, the author of that 47-ball hundred at the Wankhede, had his ego played like a tin whistle before he'd taken the time to find his range.
Before West Indies could regroup, Lendl Simmons, their semi-final hero was gone, David Willey curling an inswinger into his front pad with the same aplomb that Ryan Sidebottom had brought to England's 2010 campaign in the Caribbean. At first all Marlon Samuels and Bravo could do was rebuild the innings from within a stunned vacuum. Poking the singles that had been rumoured to be beneath their dignity, accepting the tide was no longer in their favour, as Liam Plunkett banged out a Test-match tattoo on a tight, back-of-a-length line and Adil Rashid opened his account with a ripper dipper that dropped late on Bravo and bit away from the bat, before switching to a diet of googlies to negate the impact of the dew.
But all the while, you knew it was coming. The West Indies pain train, that fusillade of boundaries that you knew could haul any cause back from the brink. The first six of the innings didn't land until the 14th over, by which stage the rate was almost exactly two a ball. But when two more followed in Plunkett's final over, including a fearsome straight smash from a now-psychotically pumped-up Samuels, you realised that the new target, 52 runs from 30 balls, was essentially a case of landing one blow in three.
Time can stand still in Calcutta if you find a means to let it. Much like the herds of glorious yellow taxis that patrol the streets but seemed determined to stop for no-one, there's a random element to life in India's most storied city. England squeezed and they fought and they wrestled to keep the match in their grasp. They soaked in the setting, and warmed to their task, pouncing in the outfield and daring the West Indians to take their chase deeper than any side has had to go in a World final.
They slowed the game to the tempo that their captain had demanded, they had the trophy winking at them from the sidelines. They had once again fiddled a means to make a merit of their imperfections and nothing, surely, could stop them now.
But then, at the bitterest of denouements, England's time froze completely. And as West Indies restarted the party that has barely relented since they landed, the realisation dawned that, for Stokes, part of his persona will remain trapped in that over for eternity - another ghost of Eden Gardens, another layer of legend in the greatest venue of all.

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