The best religion in the world

Today, I’m sending you something completely different.

Yesterday, 14 July was the one-year anniversary of the Cricket World Cup final.

In the days and weeks after England won that improbable, incredible game, I wrote about it, and vowed I wouldn’t look back at what I wrote until a year later.

I have now done so and am happy enough with the result that I’ve decided to share it with you as well.

For cricket fans I hope it brings back some of the emotions of the day, and for non-fans (or not-yet-fans as I like to think of you), it hopefully reveals a few of the reasons why we who love the game do so with such fervour.

Enjoy…

Cricket: the best religion in the world

Jos Buttler takes the ball cleanly from Jason Roy’s one-bounce throw. He pivots on his right foot, and rugby tackles the stumps. Martin Guptill isn’t even in the picture yet.

As an English cricket fan, it’s impossible not to grin like a child.

I’ve re-watched that moment in various forms. I think it has been taken down now, but the best version was one with the chorus from Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On edited on to the footage.

It adds a layer of intensity to the reactions of the players as they beat the ground, collapse, and run around wildly celebrating.

I roared at my empty living room at the time, and can feel the tear ducts twitching in the office now, as I treat myself to the fourth viewing of the day.

A batsman’s hymn

Cricket is the fastest game in the world, and the slowest game in the world,

The simplest game in the world, and the most complicated too,

It can be longest game in the world, or shortest game in the world,

Cricket can give you the best day of your life, or your worst.

Cricket is the best game in the world, and the worst.

So chanted my childhood coach Maurice Jules, with his enthusiastic Caribbean lilt.

Maurice had the best phrase for every situation, and in that mantra he captured the essence of the great game better than anyone. It is a game of complexity, dichotomy and extreme contrast. In that way, cricket is like life. For many, cricket is life.

For England, cricket is the best game in the world. For New Zealand, the worst.

Jofra Archer is fast as lightning, but Martin Guptill seemed to run in slow-motion.

Root had his worst day with the bat, but his best ever as a player.

It took a couple of months for the tournament. Eight hours for the game. But a matter of milliseconds decided it.

Were it not a final, the first six hours or so might have been labelled “turgid”. And then the final minutes had more excitement than some seasons.

Cricket is a game of never-ending dichotomies. The final had it all.

“Best game in the world, worst game in the world”

In that oft-repeated refrain, Maurice taught us why the game holds such a firm and un-relinquishing grip on so many of us. And that phrase is the only way I can frame the drama of Sunday evening.

It can give you your best day ever, or your worst – with little or no indication beforehand as to which is heading your way.

Luck, randomness, skill, tactics, team spirit, courage, physical prowess, all will play their part in making you feel total agony or near-spiritual ecstasy. It’s that complexity that creates such enduring love.

Who could ever have imagined, let alone predicted, any of the events in that second innings?

England starting slowly, collapsing before drinks? Not I. Buttler getting out just when victory finally seemed in our grasp? Still no. A deflected overthrow giving us hope, when with 15 runs required from four balls, there was so little? No chance.

Cricket can in a single instant deliver unbearable cruelty, while simultaneously granting every childhood wish and realising every fevered dream.

And so it was as the sun dwindled over the well-mown grass at the spiritual, and now physical, home of cricket. The World Cup is ours.

By hook or by crook, by overthrow or by technicality, England are World Cup Champions.

They also happen to be the best one-day team in the world, probably also in history.

When the big guns don’t fire for other teams – they lose. Look at David Warner and Aaron Finch in the semi-final, Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor in both games against us, Virat Kohli in the semi-final…

But when our big guns fail – Jonny Bairstow, Roy, Joe Root (abysmally in this case), Eoin Morgan too – we still have Ben Stokes. And then an out of sorts Buttler appears, finding the middle of the bat as if the previous nine games hadn’t happened.

It would be an unusual tournament where Joseph Charles Buttler didn’t have a large effect on a single game. It’s a special kind of player, or person, who can reach new heights in situations of extreme pressure. Buttler and Stokes are special indeed.

What an incredible player Buttler is. He showed on Sunday that he is no one-trick pony. He may have five of the ten fastest ODI hundreds by Englishmen, but he can also play like Root does – knocking ones relentlessly, playing the situation perfectly, hitting gaps and running hard.

And for Stokes, redemption on multiple counts. Redemption from what someone lazily labelled Carlos Brath-gate. From his fight outside a bar in Bristol. And from two games in the very same World Cup where he got us heart-wrenchingly close – but couldn’t get us over the line.

Mud-stained, exhausted, not out and victorious. Stokes all over.

Two sides of the same coin

As Buttler took Roy’s throw cleanly on the last ball of the Super Over, and ripped out the stumps, the England players exploded a wild celebratory sprint into the outfield. I screamed into a living room with only my dad to hear me.

At the same time though, it caused unimaginable pain. To the 11 New Zealand players, their partners, coaches, subs, friends, families, and fans.

My heart ached all day on the Monday. I had an unusual kind of emotional hangover that only such a gruelling, unbearable, slow-motion crescendo can produce. And I’m just an England fan…

How must Trent Boult be feeling? Yes, he executed the two run-outs brilliantly at the end to keep them in it. But he also carried a catch over the boundary which would have ended England’s chances. If we’re ignoring Kane’s post-match advice not to nit-pick, we could point out that he also missed his yorker lengths in the final and Super Overs.

Or Guptill, who failed to get that back for a second run which could, in a single blow, have redeemed his surprisingly dismal form in the whole tournament.

Will Williamson regret choosing to bat first when he won the toss? Will he not wish he had put himself into bat in the Super Over? Was Boult the right call over Jimmy Neesham’s variations? Ah well, that’s cricket – no sense in nit-picking, says the losing captain.

Crickianity

If cricket is a religion, then for those fans such as myself who watched, unmoving, every one of the 612 legitimate deliveries bowled yesterday, the World Cup final was something of a religious experience.

It was, and perhaps it will remain, the height of our cricket-watching days. Especially for those of us who were too young during the ‘05 Ashes to truly appreciate it.

I certainly won’t have been alone in declaring after each and every game during the World Cup, win or loss, that we were going to win it. Our faith has been repaid.

After the game, much was made of the small moments near the end that turned the tide in England’s favour. The ricochet that gifted England four extra runs. The technicality which meant New Zealand had to surpass our score in the Super Over. Boult stumbling back on to the boundary rope.

Williamson suggested destiny – that it was written in the stars. Morgan claimed the luck of the Irish, and passed on Adil Rashid’s confirmation that Allah was indeed on our side, rather than theirs.

All that spiritual talk did make me think though that cricket has a lot in common with certain monotheisms.

Anyone who scoffs at this idea need only ask someone in India what they think of Sachin Tendulkar…

The analogies are there: the great umpire in the sky, the holy trinity represented by the stumps, turning up every weekend. A game of morals, values, belief, and many a miracle too.

And in fact, it must be religious feeling. No other psychological framework could support such enduring love for something that deals out so much heartbreak and ecstasy with equal measure. The Problem of Evil, I believe they call it…

In a recent fixture of my own, this feeling was captured by a teammate who had skipped his girlfriend’s birthday event, in order to be given a shocker of an LBW decision for no run, and getting hit for 18 off his two overs.

No deep sigh, no tears. He simply declared, “It’s the great game, and we love it.” To look such a wasted day in the eye and declare your love for the game is something that perhaps only cricketers can do. See you next Saturday.

Williamson and his merry men will hope that they can see things the same way.

This is perhaps a feeling unique to cricket. That even in defeat, the love of the game has made the day worthwhile.

Golfers, mis-cuing their second tee shot once more into the trees on the right, will more often declare early retirement from that hateful, soul-crushing game (in which sadly, I too am a struggling participant). The cry “I’m giving up golf, this time for real” can be heard from many a lake-side tee – only for the slicer in question to relent after their first shandy is half-empty.

For a cricketer – perhaps it would be half full.

Was it luck?

In golf it’s quite noticeable that after a round, the player considers themselves unlucky to have narrowly missed the putt on 14, while claiming full responsibility for the putt on 9 that only just fell into the hole.

There is no such concept in golf as the “lip in”, only the “lip-out”, when a ball is caught by the edge of the hole and nearly falls in, but is sling-shotted out in a new direction.

It’s very easy to remember the things that just went against you. Those that fell your way are quickly taken for granted.

Luck in sport is most often perceived in isolation. Currently the focus is on Guptill’s throw which ricocheted off Stokes’ bat, crediting England with four extra runs.

But luck is ever present. Williamson said after the game that it’s impossible to nit-pick any game of cricket and he’s right.

There are hundreds of tiny moments which have the potential to be massive. 20/20 allowed players to say “every ball matters” – but for those fans who prefer the longer format, the beauty is that every ball could matter.

Morgan’s lofted cut shot could have fallen just a foot shorter, and Lockie Ferguson wouldn’t have caught the England captain.

Roy could very easily have been given out first ball.

Every snick off could be called woefully bad luck, as a single millimetre difference could dramatically change the outcome.

New Zealand could be said to have been lucky to make the semis at all, with the point gained in their abandoned game being the difference between them and Pakistan.

Luck, in the short or the long run, is inevitably shared.

What if, what if…

There is a custom among sports journalists at major events, with narrow deadlines to meet, to prepare an article for each eventuality. In this case, a New Zealand win and an English one.

Jonathan Liew, sports journalist, shared a passage from the now redundant former article on Twitter.

He captioned it – “GET IN THE BIN”.

He managed to get at what we can all now feel.

A sense of immense relief that we do not exist in an alternate reality.

One where Guptill ran just one metre further in those seven or eight seconds after toe-edging it out to Roy at deep midwicket. Jason could have mis-fielded it as he had done earlier in the over. Guptill could have been a fraction quicker. The throw could have been wild, Buttler could have fumbled it. Any number of things could have gone wrong.

The butterfly effect… So close, yet so far… Oh what might have been… It’s pick-your-cliché-o’clock in the headquarters of the UK’s major newspapers.

Four years rendered worthless. Eoin Morgan and Andrew Strauss discredited. Calls for Roy to be called in for the Ashes are quickly muted when people point out that the swinging ball confounded him in the final. We are labelled flat track bullies, no better than baseball players swinging from the hip on pristine batting wickets. Morgan steps down, Stokes is a broken man after two World Cup final disasters. Michael Vaughan and Kevin Pietersen fail to hide their delight (behind their professionally applied make-up) that this so-called golden generation couldn’t do what they never could.

Thank God, that great umpire in the sky, that we don’t have to endure that horror.

It’s like when you fail a driving test – the worst part is you have to go through it all again.

In this case, the best thing is almost that we don’t.

Instead, every problem is happily forgotten – at least until the Ashes start in a few weeks’ time.

The verdict

There has been a whisper of an outcry from certain corners of the game that the World Cup should be shared, that it should have been five runs not six from the overthrow, that the boundary countback rule is a farce.

But as unlucky as New Zealand may feel, how England would feel if they hadn’t won is far worse. We are the best ODI team in the world, perhaps ever. We were the best team in the World Cup, and the only one to beat every one of the top sides at least once. And boy did we beat them. We Lionel Messi-ed Australia with eight wickets and nineteen overs in hand. Australia. Defending champions, tournament favourites at that point, five-time winners.

As in our previous ODI series, we humiliated them.

No team deserved it more than us. We had multiple match winners, multiple stars, played exciting cricket, and sometimes smart cricket too. Our bowling attack matches our batting for aggression and excitement. Our fielding reaches the sensational – look at Stokes’ catch at deep midwicket.

We deserved the win and we got it. New Zealand may feel heart-broken by the events of the day, but over every other time scale, England deserved it.

But although England rightfully thrust the trophy aloft, presumably with the previous winners’ champagne and fingerprints cleaned off, it was pretty unanimously agreed that cricket was the real winner.

Just what the game needed… Shows the value of bowlers… Doesn’t need to be a boundary-fest… Will inspire millions of “kids” (children)… This will have gained cricket a raft of new fans…

“Cricket’s the winner” – a cry heard mostly as a sarcastic response to a slow half-tracker being toe-edged to point on any one of a hundred club grounds on a Saturday afternoon. But this time it was true.

It was an incredible game, highlighting everything that’s good about it.

Cricket brings people together across class, nationality, and now gender too. It’s a game of values, of good vs evil (the Ashes spring to mind), of suffering, faith, and delight.

Cricket teaches you how to live, and asks only for your love in return. Turning up every weekend helps too.

No, you’re right, there’s not a touch of religion about it.

Kit Winder,
Editor, UK Uncensored

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