In the end England needed the help of the proverbial "Hand of God" to edge up to New Zealand and nudge beyond them to win the finals of ICC World Cup 2019. In a match that went to the super over, England were the fortuitous recipient of a bonus four runs in the final over, when a bullet like throw by Martin Guptill ricocheted off the bat of a diving Ben Stokes to the fence. This helped to bring down the asking rate from 9 runs off 3 balls to 3 off 2. England managed to level the scores, taking the game to the super over, which also ended with both sides scoring 15 runs each. However, this tie was to the advantage of hosts as they had scored more boundaries during the match, including the slog overs, and gave them their first-ever title triumph.
Neither side deserved to lose after playing a match that would be remembered by cricket buffs for all time to come. When the game started, England were admittedly the stronger side on paper but Kiwis had earned a well-deserved reputation for being the dark horses on account of their ability to raise their skill levels during critical stages of the championship. Batting first on a wicket where ball did not come on to the bat, New Zealand made 241 runs, which was just below the par score of 250-260 runs. Though England did not lose wickets in a heap early in their innings, sustained pressure from the bowlers saw their innings tumble to 86 runs for 4 wickets in the 24th over, when Jos Buttler joined Ben Stokes at the crease. Stokes, who was in brilliant form with the bat through the tournament, guided the more youthful and aggressive Buttler and the duo blunted the sharp edge of Kiwi bowlers through a partnership of 110 runs that took England to the doorsteps of victory.
But New Zealand were not prepared to throw in the towel easily. They came back strong and hard during the last five overs when their bowlers displayed no signs of nerves and bowled to a plan. On the other hand, Stokes appeared unperturbed by the rising asking rate and dismissals of Chris Woakes, Liam Plunkett and Jofra Archer and looked capable of singlehandedly taking his side to victory with his nonchalant stroke play.
Thirty-four runs were needed off the last 3 overs, which became 25 from 2 and 15 from the last, which was bowled by Trent Boult. After two dot balls, Stokes swung the third for a sixer and then came the overthrow which gave England another six runs. Boult kept his cool, as did the Kiwi fielders to restrict England to two runs from the last couple of balls, even while running out Adil Rashid and Mark Wood to tie the scores.
India missed a trick
The loss to New Zealand in the first semifinal match left Indian fans disconsolate. The overwhelming feeling amongst them was that the Kiwis would be easy fodder for the mighty Indian cricketing machine, which had run into top form in the league phase. While a few followers of the game tried to find solace behind the good performance of the side till the knockout phase, others involved themselves in endless debates over what went wrong, an exercise in which the past cricketers and commentators also took part. Fingers were pointed at the team management for sending Mahendra Singh Dhoni at no:7, which, many felt, did disservice to his abilities and experience. The broad consensus is that he would have been a calming influence on Rishabh Pant and Hardik Pandya who got out playing loose shots while attempting to push the run rate.
The truth is that New Zealand were the better side on the two days that the semifinal match took place. They batted well to score 211 runs on day one before rains interrupted and when play resumed on the next day they bowled superbly to bowl out India 18 short of their final score of 239. As Kane Williamson said after the match, the wicket was one where a total of 240-250 was a par score and New Zealand ensured that they reached this target. This would indicate that Indian bowling was not as effective as made out to be.
In retrospect, it is easy to see where India missed the trick. Leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal conceded 63 runs off his 10 overs, while fast bowler Mohammed Shami, who had taken 14 wickets in four matches was made to cool his heels in the pavilion. Since pitch and conditions favoured fast bowlers and exponents of swing bowling, as proved so effectively by the Kiwi pacers, one can say with confidence that Shami would have enjoyed bowling on this wicket. Thus it would emerge that team management failed to read the pitch and conditions accurately, giving New Zealand an upper hand even before the match started.
When India lost three early wickets with only five runs on board, the batsman who walked in at no: 5 was Dinesh Karthik. India's famed top order comprising of Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul and Virat Kohli, who had scored heavily in the preceding matches, were all at sea while facing the bowling of Trent Boult and Matt Henry, before getting dismissed cheaply. It was evident that the team management had sufficient confidence in the abilities of Karthik to send him in the middle of such a huge crisis. However, it would have served better the cause of the team and Karthik's confidence had he been given some opportunities to bat in any of the previous games.
In the match against Bangladesh he batted at no: 7 and walked in when the 45th over was in progress while in the game against Sri Lanka he did not get a chance to bat. If he was the man slotted to walk in when the top order failed, would it not have made cricketing sense to give him a chance to bat and score a few runs before the knockout matches started? In the match against Sri Lanka, India was in a near invincible position when the first wicket fell at the total of 189 runs, chasing a target of 265. However, Kohli decided to come in at no: 3 and add to his total tally of runs, rather than giving an opportunity for Karthik to have some exposure with the bat in the middle. Thus, the blame for not giving Karthik any match practice before semifinals would rest squarely on the team management.
India have to thank Dhoni and Ravindra Jadeja for taking the side to a respectable score after they were neck deep in ruins, having lost six wickets for 92 runs. Jadeja played a brilliant innings when he counter-attacked with gusto and brought India to a stage where a victory appeared a distinct, if distant, possibility. However, New Zealand were destined to have the last laugh as Jadeja fell while attempting to clear the ropes a fifth time and Dhoni was run out through a brilliant throw from Martin Guptill at square leg. But for the valiant efforts of these veterans, India would have folded up for a total score below 150.
England had stormed into finals defeating Australia comfortably by a margin of eight wickets. England's win was fashioned as much by a brilliant burst of fast bowling by Chris Woakes who broke through the top order as by the explosive innings played by opening batsman Jason Roy. Aussies buckled down without much of a fight except during the fourth-wicket stand between Alex Carey, who continued bravely after being hit on the chin by a bouncer from Jofra Archer, and Steve Smith. It was a sweet revenge for England, who had been smarting under the ignominy of the defeat handed over to them by Australia in the league phase of the championship. The early fall of skipper Aaron Finch and high-scoring David Warner, along with the absence of injured Usman Khawaja, derailed Aussie batting right from the start and they could muster a total of only 223 runs, which proved to be easy fodder for the hosts.
Williamson, the hero
New Zealand did not win the trophy but they emerged as the heroes of the championship with their keen fighting spirit and cohesive approach. They were ably led by Kane Williamson, who was undoubtedly the "star of the tournament" both for his astute captaincy as well for his brilliant batting. He marshalled his resources with aplomb, was completely unruffled, even when the overthrow came as a bolt from the blue, and was the very epitome of grace and dignity, even under extreme pressure. The Kiwis played the game as it should be and gave the followers of this sport many beautiful memories that they would cherish forever.
Thank you Williamson! Well played Team New Zealand! This would go down in the annals of cricket history as your World Cup!