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Brutal for Kiwis to be Called Vanquished Without Being Beaten…Twice

R Kaushik |July 16, 2019, 10:10 AM IST
Brutal for Kiwis to be Called Vanquished Without Being Beaten…Twice

London: There was a victor, but no vanquished. There was a winner, but there was no loser. Yet, at the end of a World Cup final that left people breathless, drained, confused, angry, fuming, disgusted and/or delighted, one team walked away with the cup, the other with oodles of respect and the sympathy of the entire cricketing fraternity.

This was a showdown for the ages, on a Sunday that should never have ended. Not far from Lord’s, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer were going toe-to-toe, gladiators who hadn’t heard of the phrase ‘backward step’. For nearly five hours, they traded punches and subtle counter-punches, the game of cut-and-thrust elevating the tennis to a mouth-watering spectacle. Had it not been for the introduction of a new format (tie-breaker at 12-all in the fifth and deciding set), they might still have been going at each other at SW19.

As would, remarkably coincidentally, England and New Zealand a mere 8.8 miles away on the hallowed turf of Lord’s, as much of an iconic sporting venue as Wimbledon. The home of cricket produced a contest every bit enthralling as the one unravelling at the home of grass. And while the new scoring system at Wimbledon hardly raised an eyebrow in the aftermath of Djokovic’s fifth Wimbledon crown, the same can’t be said of the Super Over-and-beyond drama that played out at Lord’s and at the end of which England were crowned World Cup champions for the first time ever.

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After eight hours of compelling drama, nothing separated them from New Zealand. Nothing basic, that is. New Zealand finished regulation play at 241 for eight, England replied with 241 all out. England scored 15 in the Super Over, introduced in One-Day International cricket only at the World Cup; New Zealand’s riposte ended at the exact same score. After 102 overs of largely arresting action, the two teams were level on every count. Give them both the trophy, you wanted to scream. Let us have joint winners, for neither side deserved to not be on the winning side.

But that’s not how sport functions, does it? Its allure lies in the fact that nearly every match in a knockout situation must have a winner. Draws are ok in league stages in football and hockey; once you progress to the knockouts, there is extra time and penalty shootouts. After several decades of letting ties remain stalemates, cricket came up with its equivalent of the ‘deciding point’ in tennis.

Only, the deciding point also proved indecisive, so came the count-back. The dreaded, indigestible, unsavoury count-back. Boundaries scored. England 26, New Zealand 17. More a rugby score than cricket. Game over, trophy won, and thanks for coming, Kane Williamson and his team.

New Zealand Demonstrate How to be Glorious in Defeat (1)

Lesser men than Williamson would have failed miserably to replicate the composure of New Zealand’s admirably inspirational leader. You could have knocked him over with a feather, so shattered was he by the turn of events, but in his smile that failed totally to mask the heart-numbing ache written on every breath, you could identify the soul of a champion, the spirit of a warrior.

“I don't know how they won it -- what was it, boundaries or something?” he smiled good-naturedly, neither sniping nor carping. “Someone had to walk away with the title and we're gutted that it's not us. England had a very good campaign and they deserve the victory.”

But so do you guys, Kane. You deserve the cup too. You deserve more than the ‘well played, hard luck’ platitudes. You deserve more than the justified accolades for your sportsmanship and your gentility. You deserve more than sympathy and admiration. You deserve to wear the crown of the champions that you are. You deserve more, you setter of trends, you inspirational soul, you majestic captain of the indefatigable Black Caps. You deserve a share of the spoils. Period.

As he struggled to grapple with the enormity of the emotions, very few of them positive, Williamson repeatedly spoke of the ‘uncontrollables’. He was alluding primarily to the overthrown four that ricocheted unintentionally off that other warrior Ben Stokes’ bat and trickled away for a boundary that eventually set up the tie. And the Super Over tie. And the count-back. But what about the controllables themselves? Could they have been controlled better?

New Zealand Demonstrate How to be Glorious in Defeat (21)

Here’s what we have. The Super Over was a belated 20-over brainwave that was considered a more level-playing decider than the bowl-out that was previously in vogue. The latter entailed players to bowl at untenanted stumps, the team with the maximum strikes adjudged the winner. While it did provide drama, it seemed a somewhat flat way to separate sides, hence the Super Over where two wickets means end of innings, where runs scored are all that matter.

Twenty20 cricket, the three-hour shootout that must have a winner at the end, needed the Super Over. It could do with the count-back, because for the most part, that format is largely about boundaries, about blazing fours and towering sixes. It has been packaged and marketed as an abridged, more entertaining and exciting offshoot of the stately Test match version and the less frenetic 50-over game. The upstart that is as much about style as substance. That’s fine. But a Super Over to decide a tie in ODIs? Hmmm.

Alright, so everyone knew well before the World Cup that the Super Over was a factor in the knockouts. And that a Super Over stalemate would lead to a count-back. The playing conditions said so. But hey, the playing conditions are there for the worst-case scenario, right? Who in their right minds would have envisaged a Super Over-finish to the final of the World Cup? And a tie in that 12-ball mini-match too? Not Williamson, for certain.

“Yeah, we didn't really do a lot of 'Super Over' practice but at the same time, it's cricket and guys do work on hitting the ball out of the park and that's all that was required,” he remarked, the smile failing to traverse the short distance from lips to eyes. “Yeah, we tied that too, didn't we? It is one of those days.”

It truly was. But count-back? On number of boundaries?

“If you could give me an alternative, I'd be able to, like compare the both,” Eoin Morgan, Williamson’s England equivalent on every count, shot back. “But I can't think of an alternative at the moment. The rules are obviously set out a long time ago and we have no control over them. So...”

So, are the lawmakers suggesting that restriction is a superior virtue to penetration? Why not the number of wickets taken? Oh wait, cricket is a batsman’s game, isn’t it?

Like Morgan, Williamson too seemed somewhat stumped about the fairness of the countback conundrum.

New Zealand Demonstrate How to be Glorious in Defeat (11)

“I suppose you never thought you would have to ask that question and I never thought I would have to answer it,” he flashed that smile again. “Yeah, while the emotions are raw, it is pretty hard to swallow when two teams have worked really, really hard to get to this moment in time and when sort of two attempts to separate them with a winner and a loser it still doesn't perhaps sort of shine with one side coming through. It is what it is, really. The rules are there at the start.

“No one probably thought they would have that sort of result. But yeah, very tough to swallow. A great game of cricket and all you guys probably enjoyed it.”

Enjoyed the game, Kane, but not the denouement. Far from it.

All this, of course, comes with the benefit of hindsight. Anyone who says he woke on Sunday morning knowing that the final would end on boundary count-back is either miraculously clairvoyant or less than honest. But in the errors of today lie the genesis of the lessons for tomorrow, and there is a lesson in this for the lawmakers – tinker, but within reasonable limits. Otherwise, what is it that they say about cricket coming back and biting you where it hurts the most?

Let the other sports have their tie-breakers. Let T20 cricket have its stalemate-settler, the Super Over and the boundary count-back and whatever else in the event of the count-back ending in a tie too. But let World Cup finals be remembered for their gloriousness, for the contests they throw up, for the drama and the emotion of the moment, for the pendulous swing of fortunes, for the birth of heroes and the genesis of legends. Let them not be overshadowed by the ghost of count-backs that will now haunt New Zealand cricket for ever and ever. And beyond.

So, next time there’s a tie in the final, let’s celebrate both protagonists as champions. Let there not be just one winner, and a runner-up who is deemed second-best even though he hasn’t been beaten. What say?

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2 New Zealand 2547 111
3 South Africa 2917 108
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2 India 7071 122
3 New Zealand 4837 112
4 Australia 5543 111
5 South Africa 5193 110
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2 England 4253 266
3 South Africa 4196 262
4 India 8099 261
5 Australia 5471 261
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