Obviously, the World Cup finished a few days ago. But after a final of that magnitude, with that much emotion to process, I needed some time. Now let’s walk through those last days together.
World Cup day 41
Back in Manchester on the day of the semi-final, the sky looks ominous. We’re expecting another decent pitch after South Africa made so many runs here the other night, but against India’s bowlers, New Zealand find it impossible to hit anything off the square. The grey clouds gather and thicken and increase in intensity, and eventually the rain falls.
While the covers and the umpires and the ground staff do their dance of rolling out and rolling back and being rained off again, the attendant media do their own dance. Everyone is trying to work out whether they need to stay another night in Manchester. There is a buzz and a flurry of rebookings and recalculating.
Eventually, the match is postponed to resume the next day. Adam Collins and I record our Final Word podcast for Firstpost with only half a match to cover. This is a strange experience, taking a Test match mindset into a one-dayer. New Zealand will resume tomorrow on 211 for 5? What?
Luckily we’re staying with my friend Foxy in Manchester, so while everyone scrambles for accommodation, we can just go home and play a tournament of Klask. If you don’t know Klask, it’s kind of a tiny version of air hockey crossed with foosball, where you play off against one opponent while a whole bunch of magnets cause all sorts of problems. It’s also intensely addictive. Don’t start if you don’t want to spend hours on it.
World Cup day 42
Day two of a one-day match. The strangest concept. Stranger for Ross Taylor and company, who have to come out and bat for 23 balls. The run chase should be a stroll for India. But there goes a wicket, and another, and another. The first time ever in a one-day international that the top three are dismissed for one run each.
Once again, the giant temporary stand at Old Trafford makes the ground look like something from a dystopian fantasy novel. The smaller second-day crowd is still big enough to make plenty of noise as Ravi Jadeja takes the match by the horns and nearly wrestles it to a standstill. In the end, Trent Boult holds his nerve to get Jadeja, and Martin Guptill produces a moment of brilliance to run out Dhoni. New Zealand go through.
World Cup day 43
Semi-finals on three consecutive days, as England prepare to take down Australia in Birmingham. The match at Edgbaston was supposed to be full of India fans, so there are plenty of them out the front trying to get rid of their tickets. One thing that a World Cup offers is the chance to appreciate the entrepreneurial spirit of human beings.
All along the roads anywhere near Edgbaston are residents offering their driveways and yards for paid parking, with signs advertising all-day deals at 25 quid a pop. That’s a fairly hefty impost but some will pay it for the convenience. Then as you get closer to the ground, the ticket touts appear, issuing their war cry.
“Buy and sell tickets! Buy and sell tickets! Any tickets, buy and sell.”
Ticket touts always look roughly the same. They’re either a bit rough or a bit spiv. They usually have a Cockey tilt to their accent, even in this modern age. They have the blocky bodies of a lifetime spent eating pork pies, and they wear things like tweed flatcaps and fake leather jackets, and maybe sunglasses. They have a serrated swagger to everything they do, and the same to the rough side of their voices.
They’re just part of the human flotsam drifting around outside any World Cup game. The touts and the would-be buyers arguing with them. The fans hoping that if they just hang around long enough, a way in will magically appear. The lost-looking volunteers trying to find someone to help. The fluorescent security people looking for someone to order around. By the side of the road are some boys with a broken-down rental car, staring disconsolately at their phones.
England have to bowl first but do it with sizzle. Woakes, Archer, getting pace and movement. Wickets fall, Steve Smith gets run out by a throw that goes through his legs. Alex Carey gets hit in the face, stitched up, and bats on. Australia don’t make enough. Jason Roy pumps sixes into the stands, one so big that it nearly hits the window in the fourth-floor press box.
“No player has ever hit the top tier of this stand in a match before,” announces the wonderstruck Edgbaston media officer.
The joke coming into this match was that if it got washed out, Australia would go through to the final due to finishing higher on the league table. But it’s only as the last few runs tick down, the drizzle begins. Seconds after Eoin Morgan biffs four over the top of mid-on to win the match, the rain comes in earnest. It is a little sign from the sky, perhaps, that the fates are on England’s side.
World Cup day 44
The couple of days before a final are the nicest in the whole tournament. Things become more relaxed, there are no more calculations to make about what might happen. Everyone who has been covering it gathers in London. There are meals and catch-ups and drinks.
The England players rest up, the New Zealanders do some media at Lord’s on Friday. They seem entirely relaxed, happy to be there, very content to be underdogs. “It doesn’t matter what kind of dog it is,” says Kane Williamson. As long as they stay in the fight.
World Cup day 45
Everyone is back at Lord’s on Saturday for the more formal preliminaries: training for both teams, working last-minute on some skills. Morgan looks relaxed again, after becoming so tense and unhappy at times during his team’s campaign. Williamson is his usual self.
The ground is teeming with people. The United Nations of media representatives gather in the big spaceship that is the Lord’s press box, floating high above the cricket ground and looking down like a Panopticon. The staff of all stripes move to and fro, laying in stores and checking that things are in order.
One of the nice things about Lord’s, apart from being a historical centre of cricket and all of that, is that the cricket ground is only one part of the larger complex. There’s the library and office building over the road from the Pavilion, then the garden next to it. There’s the tavern facing onto the road and the John Lord function room above it. Out the back of the seating bowl at the other end is the Nursery ground: the large grassed expanses of practice pitches where nets can be erected, and more hospitality spaces. When it’s busy on a sunny afternoon, there are few better places to be.
World Cup day 46
The morning of the final is not sunny or lovely. But the rain stops in time. Even as a neutral, I’m nervous walking into the ground. All of these weeks of matches, then these last two days of waiting and anticipation. All of it is coming down to this. England. New Zealand. A team will win its first World Cup by the end of the day.
You already know what happened in the match. And what didn’t. All that I can tell you is that the realisation of how special this game was going to be was a realisation that dawned slowly. In the last 30 overs you realise this might be special. In the last 10 overs, really special. In the last three overs, truly outrageous. And then two extra overs are added, to make it the most ridiculously chaotic and glorious cricket match ever played.
People can argue over the result for the rest of time. They probably will. But that won’t change how incredible the feeling was during that final hour of the day. With the golden sunlight over the ground, with the grandstands full and heaving with people, and with the match spiralling into even crazier moments.
The sound of the crowd was a physical force. When Ben Stokes tried to strike boundaries but only found singles, a whoosh as though all the air was being sucked out of a balloon. When he cleared the rope, a whump of noise lifting up through everybody, making muscles twitch and skin tingle.
The most intense finish one could imagine. Afterward, New Zealand’s players wore the pain openly, and our New Zealand friends and colleagues tried to cope. Our English friends, though, had a wonderful experience of catharsis. All the waiting and wishing and hoping, all the near misses and misses by a mile, and finally they were here.
It was bittersweet; the joy of a team that had won, the pain of a team that never lost. But it was, as a sporting moment, the greatest I’ve ever seen. The ideal place to leave a diary, after 46 days and 10 towns, 23 matches and at least as many trains, 49 podcasts and dozens of Tesco sandwiches. An imperfect tournament, one that needs to open its arms to the world again, but a perfect spectacle at the end.