For all the pain felt by Black Caps fans, there’s the hope of better things to come.
The Black Caps probably would have won the World Cup if a throw from the outfield hadn’t ricocheted from England all-rounder Ben Stokes’ outstretched bat to the boundary. Cricket etiquette, which Stokes surely would’ve abided by, is that you don’t take the runs on offer in that situation; however, if the ball goes to the boundary, the umpires have no choice in the matter.
Thus, two runs became six and instead of needing six runs to tie and seven to win off two balls, England needed two to tie and send the game to a super over, which they duly scrambled. (There’s a view the umpires misinterpreted a somewhat ambiguously worded law and only five runs should’ve been given and a tailender, rather than Stokes, should’ve been on strike.)
Why, I hear you ask, don’t the umpires call “dead ball” when that happens? You might as well ask why cricket has leg byes, which reward the batting team for failure, or persists with the anachronism of the toss whereby the outcome of games that last for days are sometimes decided by the flip of a coin before a ball is bowled.
For that matter, why, when the super overs produced another tie, did the World Cup go to the team that hit more boundaries, as opposed to lost fewer wickets or were deemed to have the smarter haircuts? It would be safe to assume few players knew beforehand that was the tie-breaker of last resort.
This was a sickening disappointment, up there with the 1995 Rugby World Cup final and 2013 America’s Cup. The Black Caps didn’t lose the final, yet didn’t win the prize. They got most things right, and the nature of team sport on big occasions is that no one ever gets everything right. The charge of overly conservative batting is based on the fatuous notion that an aggressive mindset in and of itself takes the pitch, the opposition and the game situation out of the equation. The fact is that in the semi-final and final, the Black Caps made enough runs to beat – but for an extraordinarily bad break – the two best, most aggressive batting teams at the tournament.
Opener Martin Guptill’s wretched run, culminating in a final in which pretty much everything that could’ve gone wrong for him went horribly wrong, meant that fireworks at the top of the order were in short supply. All told, Guptill scored 186 runs at an average of 20.6, with a highest score of 73.
I’ve previously noted the strikingly similar career profiles of Guptill and India’s Rohit Sharma, short-form superstars who’ve struggled to transfer their extravagant talents to test cricket. Back then, Guptill’s one-day international (ODI) record was slightly superior, but what has since transpired indicates he’s flatlining, whereas Sharma has entered the stratosphere. Sharma now has 27 ODI centuries to his name, five of which were made at this World Cup, compared with Guptill’s 16.
The bowlers compensated for this shortfall to the extent that, by the end of the tournament, the Black Caps were more of a bowling side than a batting side. There were four Black Caps – Lockie Ferguson, Trent Boult, Jimmy Neesham and Matt Henry – among the top 12 wicket-takers and six among the top 20 for economy rate.
According to notable British sports columnist Simon Barnes, “sport’s very point is that it doesn’t matter at all”. I’d put it differently: sport’s point is that it matters intensely, but only for a short while. If it continues to matter after the contestants have begun preparations for their next series or tournament, you’ve got your priorities askew.
The Black Caps had a hell of a ride, competing with distinction at the pinnacle of their sport. And although the outcome was gut-wrenching, there’s always another challenge ahead. Next month, the Black Caps tour Sri Lanka; later this year, they play a series in Australia that includes the Boxing Day test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, one of the game’s great occasions.
That hope of better things to come, sometimes so hard to cling on to in what we call real life, is why many decide that sport is worth taking seriously. But hopefully not too seriously.
This article was first published in the July 27, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.