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And so, to Kenneth Wolstenholme’s quixotic, lyrical commentary on England’s 4-2 victory over West Germany in extra time in the 1966 World Cup final: “They think it’s all over… It is now” and Ian Robertson’s voice pounding over the microphone, “He drops for World Cup glory… It’s up, it’s over, he’s done it!” in 2003, that matched in fervour that physically brutal, breathless game of rugby between England and Australia, add Ian Smith’s summary of yesterday evening’s famous victory: “England have won the World Cup by the barest of margins, by the barest of all margins…”. For all three of England’s greatest sporting victories have indeed been close-run things, and each decided in a moment, in a flash of sublime skill: Geoff Hurst’s clean strike past the keeper, Jonny Wilkinson’s nerveless drop kick, and Jason Roy’s throw zipping into Jos Buttler’s gloves, the stumps in a mess and Buttler then wheeling away into the sun…
England won. Nothing else matters really – not that the pitch was of dreadful quality – with the ball sticking in the surface one ball only to rear up off it the next – not that England benefitted from one outrageous piece of luck, or that winning by a margin of boundaries is a strange and cruel way to decide a tie – everything came together in that brutal, ecstatic, blinding moment.
A moment that proved the climax of so many motifs, story lines and personal histories that continue to shape the game.
It marked the end of the first chapter of the modern revival of English cricket when – after a dire period in the nineties – Duncan Fletcher, a cricket coach from Zimbabwe, took up post in 1999 and instituted a real professional outlook, basing selection not on the traditional yardstick of county form but on raw potential for international sport (the future England captain Michael Vaughan had a mediocre record for Yorkshire). That new regimen brought a youthful team – with all the attributes of great Test sides: raw pace and fearsome batting – to a victory in the Ashes in 2005 for the first time in eighteen years over a highly experienced Australian side, who had dominated the world game for many years.
In spite of England’s success in the noughties, we have never really taken to the limited overs format – with its brave new world of franchises, pyjama bottoms and power batting – preferring Test cricket as the ultimate form of the game, and sticking to a tentative, poor man’s Test style in the one-day game, which led to England’s exit at the group stage in 2015 (although, counter-intuitively, England won the World T20 in 2010 and reached the final in 2016).
It was a defeat that led to England’s adoption of the aggressive, flamboyant and winning method that was once seen as the preserve of individual outliers in the English game – like Eoin Morgan, who was an early convert to switch hitting, ramp shots, and cross-batting, with power generated through spinning the wrists through the ball, and Jos Buttler after him, who has perfected it with power, grace and brio.
This is a team, too, that has some of the traditional strengths of the great English Test teams – a charismatic all-rounder in Ben Stokes in the mould of Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff, and Mark Wood, who has the gift of pure pace – not so very different from the whippy Simon Jones in 2005, and just as injury-prone too – and good, honest yeomen like Liam Plunkett (who I remember making his debut in 2005 as a gawky, mercurial pace bowler).
This side also marries English cricket to another strand of world cricket: Jofra Archer, born in Barbados to a British father, who came through a club system that produced some of the best fast bowlers of all time, including Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall, but is to me more reminiscent of Michael Holding, who ran up silently and gracefully, with seemingly no effort whatsoever, only to lance it down at lightning-quick pace. Archer bowled the infamous Super Over. He’s some player: a far more experienced player on the NZ side, Trent Boult – who is a brilliant bowler at the death – was unable to nail his Yorker-length deliveries in the way Archer did.
Patrick Kidd’s sketch of the match for The Times quotes Francis Thompson’s poem, At Lord’s, an elegy to games of the past written at the end of the poet’s life: “For the field is full of shades as I near a shadowy coast, / And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost…”
There were shades out there too – I thought of all of the Englishmen who have gone before. This team may well go onto more success. They will surely go down as one of the great one-day sides, having swept all before them over the last couple of years – but for some at least, things will never be as good again. Bodies will break down; and minds will turn in on themselves. I think of Simon Jones, who never played a game for England again after 2005. Marcus Trescothick, who struggled with depression and ended his international career soon afterwards.
That’s sport – cruel and arbitrary and bittersweet – but it was sport too that fretted July the 14th with gold for all time, for the heroes who clinched their victory, and for us too who watched on.