Stokes, the lionheart who brought the World Cup home

England and New Zealand produced a Cricket World Cup for the ages. There was no loser, but someone had to get the trophy and England brought it home. The good guys in black finished second, again.

With the finish line six Super Over balls away, Ben Stokes and the rest of England took to the field knowing that four years of planning and obsessing had all come down to this. Stokes was sent to patrol long-on, just beneath the heaving Edrich Stand. As he approached the boundary rope, that entire corner of this hallowed cricket ground rose as one.

This was Stokes’ redemption, his full circle moment after a tumultuous few years during which he was on the front pages of newspapers for reasons beyond the game. Now, as part of the team trying to stop New Zealand, a captive Lord’s audience erupted in his honour. 

His innings had kept England alive. If the World Cup was late coming home, Stokes had stayed up in his pyjamas and slippers, waiting for headlights to shine through the windows.

And yet, even six balls away, it wasn’t done yet. The ICC T20 World Cup final in Kolkata, India, in 2016 was supposed to be done, until that Bajan, Carlos Brathwaite, flipped the script spectacularly for the West Indies. Devastatingly for Stokes.

No doubt pondering six of the biggest little moments of his and this remodelled side’s lives, Stokes appeared to remain calm and stay in the moment – and it is upon moments such as this that the greatest memories are made. 

Paying a small fortune to say ‘I was there’

Lord’s was a whirlpool of emotion on Sunday 14 July. For long periods, it was a party. Kiwi wickets fell at regular intervals and there was a sense at the innings break that 241 wouldn’t be quite enough. The sun broke through and England looked to be on their way. The Barmy Army went through their repertoire of bubbly tunes and the Home of Cricket was the place to be.

Those who had created signs expressing offers to do anything for a ticket knew what they were missing. Well, they thought they did, anyway. Tickets swapped hands for as much as £10 000 (about R173 000) as people paid a premium to say, “I was there.” 

To those who made it into the ground, the 2019 final will stay in the memory forever. It had everything, all beautifully bound by England’s dream to land a first Cricket World Cup.

They are now the only country to have won football, rugby and cricket World Cups. This has been the longest and most torturous vigil, though. But those who saw it will tell you it was worth the wait.

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Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic were serving up an epic of their own across the city, at Wimbledon, and Lewis Hamilton did the business at Silverstone in the British Grand Prix. But eventually all eyes were on Lord’s and the finish that no one saw coming.

“On a Sunday, people normally settle in for a bit of David Attenborough or some random film that’s on. I hope they were tuned into the cricket,” England captain Eoin Morgan said of the brilliant finale.

This was some Sunday film, a blockbuster full of A-list stars and laden with so many twists and tantalising turns that it left even neutral fans feeling tortured and breathless. As it turned out, 241 was more than enough to concoct the most thrilling game ever seen. For 20 years, cricket held the semifinal of 1999 as the greatest match ever played. That script has been spectacularly rewritten.

“It was a fantastic game to be a part of. Clearly it was a great spectacle for everyone. It is always a little better when you’re on the winning side,” New Zealand captain Kane Williamson winced. 

In the end, it was a few words from deep in the rule book that separated two superbly matched sides, both exceptionally led and chasing a maiden World Cup victory. In the end, no one truly lost. It was an outcome that will likely haunt New Zealand and their supporters forever. 

Losing after not losing 

“It is pretty hard to swallow. No one thought it would come down to that kind of stuff,” Williamson said of the boundary count permutations that eventually saw England home after two ties, first in the match and then in the Super Over.

Morgan, fully empathetic to the other dressing room, paid a glowing tribute to New Zealand and what they always bring to the table.

“We’re only newcomers to this and we want to be as consistent as them come the next World Cup, with aspirations like that. But to get over the line reaffirms everything that we have done over the last four years and justifies it as well.”

There was a sense, with everything playing out the way it did, that it was just England’s turn. It is difficult to imagine how they might have digested such an agonising defeat, if New Zealand had inched over the line instead.

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“Just gutted,” Williamson said, as he started his final press conference. 

This one clearly hurt. It was brutal. There were plenty of moments that might have gone differently but, in the end, the chips fell England’s way. 

The marginal leg-before calls. That near Stokes dismissal that turned into a six. That fateful “ghost six”. 

New Zealand fast bowler Trent Boult was crestfallen at the presentation, his mind no doubt retracing the fateful step that gave Stokes a life. 

“To pretty much do all you could, and then not get over the line … It’s hard to swallow,” Williamson grimaced. “It’s one of those things, hey.”

But it wasn’t one of those things. No one has ever seen such a fateful ricochet, at such a decisive point. An uncontrollable, as Williamson describes such things.

“Laugh or cry. It’s your choice, isn’t it? The guys are really feeling it,” he admitted.

Williamson was awarded the Player of the Tournament trophy, but it will surely hold nothing but weary recollection on his mantelpiece. As he left the press conference, there was a spontaneous ovation for one of the most respected leaders in world sport. 

A long wait to be world champions 

But England won and rightly revelled in the ecstasy of achieving a World Cup dream initiated in 1975. Former players, grown men with impressive numbers, jumped about like giddy schoolboys when Martin Guptill was a yard short of his ground, eventually. Kevin Pietersen jumped on anyone near him and others screamed and cried and bellowed in disbelief.

England? World champions?

Morgan brought the trophy to his press conference, if only to convince himself that it had really happened. He praised those who had worked so tirelessly to give his side their best chance to bring it home.

This wasn’t a success for a squad of 15 men and their support staff. This was a nation, shaking a giant gorilla off their back. When Stokes and Jos Buttler were carefully reconstructing the chase, there was a lull among the spectators. Even the Barmy Army went silent. 

And then, almost as if remembering its role as 12th man, Lord’s found its voice again. “Come on, England! Come on, England!”

Morgan said that an entire nation had believed in them because the team had believed so much in this journey. Buttler, who has played in front of bigger Indian Premier League crowds, said that the sounds at Lord’s would stay with him forever.

“The atmosphere today is something that will live with me forever. When we walked through the Long Room just before the anthems, the noise in there was deafening.”

That collective belief poured out once more in the final throes of the game. 

True ‘world’ champions with a cosmopolitan team 

There were plenty of heroes. Jofra Archer didn’t flinch when they chucked the responsibility of the Super Over on his shoulders. 

He is still getting to know his teammates, but this will help. Hugely. He said he hoped this would bring him deeper into the team. There is no question of that, because his skill set alone convinced England that he was a pivotal piece of the World Cup puzzle. In a game of such slim margins, the exceptional fielding of Jonny Bairstow and Chris Woakes in the outfield might easily be overlooked, but those saved runs were priceless at the end.

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But Stokes was the headline act. Earlier in the day, as the Kiwi innings started to bubble, a fan in black shouted out at the Christchurch-born cricketer, “Wrong shirt, Stokesy!”

He might have been in Kiwi gear, standing alongside Williamson and the others. But he wasn’t. He’s English and an all-rounder whose credentials will always be compared to Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff. His influence within the side is revered. It was he who brought this World Cup to life against South Africa, with a catch that might yet become a statue somewhere.

And it was he who delivered crucial contributions in early matches against Australia, India and Sri Lanka. It was Stokes who was up for the scrap, digging in his heels. 

“I don’t want to be remembered as the guy who had a fight in the street. I want to do things on the field to be remembered for,” he told ESPN Cricinfo ahead of the tournament.

That brawl in Bristol is long forgotten now. And even the fateful four balls of Kolkata are a footnote to a narrative that is now headlined by the fact that Stokes won the World Cup for England. “He’s almost superhuman,” Morgan said of his talisman.

Stokes is the centrepiece of a brilliant England side that will be lauded forever. He landed the telling blows as others floundered in the heat, taking the pressure on to his broad shoulders. In the end, he was too shattered to talk to the media. Then again, he didn’t need to say a thing. He’d left it all on the field.

Right shirt, Stokesy, all of England would say.

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