A game magnificent in an inscrutable, otherworldly way
Match tied; England won the World Cup on boundary count
There are countless ways to try and process the 2019 World Cup final. You can read about it in detail in at least two books, as well as revisitations in memoirs by various participants. You can watch the excellent, atmospheric documentary, The Greatest Game, co-written by Simon Hughes. You can read New Zealand's players talking about it in the Cricket Monthly. It is also possible to watch every ball of it again online, or relive it through ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball commentary.
But no matter how hard you try, understanding what took place that day will forever remain tantalisingly out of grasp, like a vivid dream, the existence of which you are aware of once you wake up but the details of which melt away as the day progresses, leaving behind only the contours.
How did a game end the way that game did, and not just any game but cricket's showpiece, the World Cup final? It's no wonder that the understanding of key protagonists slouches towards the otherworldly. In that reading, they are less instigators and more incidental debris in a bigger swirl of forces over which they have no control.
"Towards the end it felt like so many things happening that the game was taking a shape of its own," Kane Williamson says in The Greatest Game, seemingly that the match existed as a thing in and of itself, without needing players. "It just felt like you were little specks playing in an amazing game of cricket."
Nah, Morgan says. Don't need 'em.
"Allah is with us," he says. "Dilly [Adil Rashid], Allah's with us, right?"
"Always, brother," comes the reply.
In other words, it was too late to think any of this was in their control.
The 2019 final: hard to watch, harder yet to relive
© Getty Images
The 2019 final: hard to watch, harder yet to relive © Getty Images
When players talk about this game, it often comes across as an act of catharsis, irrespective of whether they were winners or non-winners (four years on, it still feels unjust to say New Zealand lost because by all rulings bar one arbitrary, once-used and now-dumped one, they didn't). The game is something to be expunged from within, simply because its improbability cannot sit inside a healthy, sane and rational human being, let alone an elite athlete trained for all their life to impose rigid control over all that is probable. (Although how does anyone, athlete or otherwise, ever get this game out of their system?)
I've tried watching it again, the entire game first and then extended highlights, but I couldn't bring myself to sit through to the end. Knowing what is going to happen only makes the torture of getting there more exquisite, because once known, you cannot un-know the bonkers concluding sequence: Trent Boult's backward step onto the boundary rope, turning wicket into six, moon into sun, water into wine; the deflection off Ben Stokes' bat; every ball of the Super Over. But even the everyday bits that litter more mortal games - the reviews, the marginal umpire's calls that saved Jason Roy but did for Ross Taylor, mistimed shots plopping gently out of the reach of fielders, edges missed, a bye not attempted - on rewatching acquire elevated status, purposed solely to make the match end the way it did. An epic is being written, we now know the ending and how we got there, and yet it remains inscrutable.
Another reason to not go through it all again is because with something this special, it is best to leave it in its purest form, untouched as it happened on the day, the first and only time it could happen as it did. It isn't necessary that we understand greatness, as much as it is to accept that, to whatever depth and in whatever way, we experienced it.
We live in the GOAT era of GOAT. Never has there been as much opportunity - or, perhaps, eagerness - to anoint GOATs. Barcelona, Pep, Messi, Ronaldo, Serena, Fed, Rafa, Djoko, LeBron, Steph, Bolt, Ronnie, the Southern Stars; never has GOAT been so readily flung around and so hotly contested. Never has the definition, the measurement and calculation of GOAT been so evolved, and the usage of the term been so abundant and carefree.
Every now and again, though, something comes along where it is obvious and indisputable the phrase applies, whether in the immediate high in the moments and days after it is over or after longer drawn consideration. Something that doesn't require deeply studied validation, although that does it no harm.
The GOAT abides: Stokes stood up for England when it counted, again
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The GOAT abides: Stokes stood up for England when it counted, again © Getty Images
The 2019 World Cup final is one of those, a lifetime event that we knew as soon as it was completed was the greatest ODI ever, that it had to be the greatest ODI ever, which four years later remains the greatest ODI ever, and which for many years hereafter will be so, until a game comes along to replace it. Just as we knew 20 years earlier, that Edgbaston was and would be the greatest ODI until something else came along.
What is central to this game's greatness is not that it had everything - no game does - but that it worked in spite of everything.
For a start, the pitch was tacky, the kind where you knew changes of pace would thrive, and so, not ideally inclined to entertaining cricket.
As a result, it went against the prevailing trend of bigger, ballsier batting, and the corollary belief that only that kind of batting equated to true entertainment. This tournament would end up behind only the 2015 edition (with different field restrictions and more Associate teams) in terms of overall run rate. But the final was a day for the Henry Nichollses and Tom Lathams of the world, and in no way is that intended as a slight. Batting needed to be functional and optimal, predicated on the notion that a wicket was valuable and had to be protected, and that all runs - boundaries, singles, doubles - were equal. It was the kind of cagey old-school batting that reminded us that ODIs were great because they were ODIs, not T20s stretched out.
It brooked against the modern thirst to view life as a binary undertaking, to seek only definitive conclusions: right or wrong, cancel or platform, win or lose. Eight hours and 102 overs gave us no outright winner, as so often in life. It did, however, pay heed to the arbitrariness of life's order, and in its application of an unsatisfying rule everyone agreed to unthinkingly without ever imagining it would be used, its inherent irony (life is, after all, an enduring exercise in irony). It was a reminder that while sport is not life itself, and neither is it merely an escape from it, it is - to use a vogue-ish compound that employs an old adjective - life-adjacent.
It even drew a personality out of Lord's. Usually the crowd noise at Lord's, as Mark Wood describes to great comic effect in The Greatest Game, is one long hum, as if they're muttering collectively and conspiratorially to each other, about you. Occasionally they might break into a polite cheer. For much of the day, this is how it was. But from the moment Jos Buttler and Stokes started rebuilding England's chase, the crowd began to loosen up, wrenching open not only the reserve that had hitherto gripped them but the more historic one that is always found at Lord's.
What is the difference between a wicket and a six? A foot in Trent Boult's case
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What is the difference between a wicket and a six? A foot in Trent Boult's case © Getty Images
Stokes agitated in the 34th over, hit three successive doubles off Matt Henry, and the crowd found its loudest voice to that point. It was the match in precis, tussle between bat and ball tighter, the victories of the former smaller, less spectacular, but all told, appreciated by the purist and the casual fan alike.
Great performances don't need great games. But great games need great performances, and this one got it from Stokes. It was apposite, because though Stokes may not be a GOAT allrounder, he is an allrounder capable of GOAT performances. Buttler's innings was masterful, for a fluency at one remove from any other innings played on that surface. It was an affirmation of his genius, witnessed in the ability to pull off scoops on that surface as much as that lofted drive off a Jimmy Neasham slower cutter, over mid-on.
But Stokes brought the struggle and the drama, the fortune as well as the calculating genius. With seven overs to go and 59 needed, Jonny Bairstow turned to England's analyst Nathan Leamon and said they needed three sixes. Stokes hit two in the last two overs as well as the most inadvertently crucial six in the history of the game. England needed two off the last ball, a shin-high full toss Stokes may have backed himself to hit for six any other day. Yet he had in mind - the things we remember at these moments - the misfortune of Bangladesh in the 2016 T20 World Cup, when, in the premature bravado of sealing a win with a big shot, Bangladesh lost to India from an unlosable position. Instead, Stokes bunted it to long-on, hoping for a double but ensuring the single. In doing so, he also brought redemption, for that Kolkata night of 2016, as well as of the events outside a Bristol nightclub in 2017.
Big players performing in big games offer a sense of completeness. Equally, only more cruelly, big players not firing also brings a perverse and necessary balance. Someone has to lose for someone to win. Trent Boult was not poor in this final but the game did him dirty. From the very first ball he bowled, not given out by the barest of margins, to the catch he took that wasn't, through to the maximum he conceded that should never have been, the final was most exacting on Boult. To top it all, this revelation from Sampath Bandarupalli from our stats desk: the final over Boult bowled in that final, before the Super Over, in which he conceded 14, remains the only time he has bowled the 50th over of a chase in an ODI. Cruel barely cuts the mustard.
Yet the game was generous enough that it could have belonged to quirkier, more unassuming names. Colin de Grandhomme's wonderful spell, ten on the trot, must have evoked something of India's 1983 World Cup win, or of New Zealand's own wibbling and wobbling trio from 1992. In truth, it was a serious upgrade, an inflationary rate version: more pace, more smarts, more skill. What if he had held on in his first over to a return offering from Bairstow? What if, what if, what if?
Last dance: Plunkett, one of the many heroes of that fateful final, has not played an international since
Gareth Copley / © ICC/Getty Images
Last dance: Plunkett, one of the many heroes of that fateful final, has not played an international since Gareth Copley / © ICC/Getty Images
Or Liam Plunkett, England's middle-overs heavy in that tournament, that entire era, whose three wickets throttled the life out of New Zealand's innings. He was a legitimate contender for Player of the Match but instead remains the only player from that match to never play another international.
In the end, endings are critical. When albums were a thing, the album closer used to be an important consideration for bands. Some movies we remember by their endings. And in the golden age of TV, how you finish a series can come to define the entire series. To a degree, it could be argued that endings have assumed an outsized significance. But there is an undeniable rootedness in all ends: they are not only what you leave with but what you return to.
Because endings can sink or elevate what has preceded them, a persistent quibble about this final has always been whether it only becomes great because of its ending. It isn't entirely unreasonable to think that way, though that also has to do with whether you prefer your ODIs of the 800 runs or 500 runs variety.
That reservation does overlook one key aspect of an ending, that it can only be a product of the start and middle that precede it. An ending cannot be what it is without everything that has gone before it. It cannot exist in a vacuum. And so it must be that the bedlam of the final moments of this final only exists as a product of every single ball prior to it. Change even one of those deliveries - say, the last ball of New Zealand's innings that Mitchell Santner ducked underneath and didn't attempt to run a bye off - and so intricately mapped is this game, that we have a different destination and not this ending.
Of course, this is true of all games. But because there was such a fragile equilibrium at the end of this one, one that could only be tipped to one side by an arbitrary ruling, and because this was a World Cup final, it can rarely have felt as heightened as in this game. Had someone in the crowd sneezed different, or shifted a little uneasily that way on their seat and not this, we might have had a different game.
Now, as another World Cup approaches, the ground beneath the sport shifting with the ominous intent of a mid-sized quake, it only adds more sheen to the status of this game. Who knows how many ODIs we will see in the next four years? Who knows how much international cricket we will see in the next four years? In which case, this greatest ODI might become the last great ODI. That's a hell of an ending.
Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo
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