LONDON: For Eoin Morgan's England and Kane Williamson's New Zealand, there is no bigger date than July 14, 2019. The final of the World Cup 2019. This is where their four years of hardwork culminates, the journey that began after the previous World Cup, comes to fruition. Whether fitting, we’ll find out Sunday. But regardless, it will be etched in their minds forever.
In the last two decades, just two teams have won the World Cup – Australia four times, India once. New Zealand came close in Melbourne 2015, but their campaign skidded off in a one-sided final. England’s was even worse, knocked out by Bangladesh in a major upset. Climbing out of that dark abyss, Morgan assembled a group of players who not only play a fearless/aggressive brand of cricket, but also inject an element of intimidation in the opposition.
On the other hand, there’s Williamson and his squad of 15 nice guys. Win or lose, top the table or endure a hat-trick of defeats, they’re always cheerful and boisterous. Attend any practice session and you’ll know. No one gave New Zealand a chance. They entered the tournament low-profile, and remained so until beating co-favourites India. Last month, the image of Williamson and Ross Taylor consoling a gutted Carlos Brathwaite after the allrounder nearly got West Indies home was reminiscent of Grant Elliott extending his arms to Dale Steyn in Auckland. They’re nice guys alright. Nice guys, who are one stop away from finishing first, not last.
Kevin Pietersen had tweeted that the team which beats India is likely to lift the cup, and his prophecy couldn’t have been more accurate. After six weeks and 47 gruelling matches, England and New Zealand have assured us a brand new World Cup winner, and the world cannot thank them enough. The World Cup was always ear-marked to be England’s, not because they are the host nation, but for their long reign as the No. 1 team in the world.
They’ve dominated and brushed aside every formidable opponent – Australia were hammered 1-4 and 0-5, India beaten 1-2 and Sri Lanka crushed 1-3 on their own soil late last year. Their opponents New Zealand haven’t been as rampant as England. In fact, in January this year they were beaten 1-4 by a visiting India. Then there was Williamson’s captaincy, a stark contrast to his predecessor Brendon McCullum’s, which has been accused of being timid and overprotective.
The nature of a cricketer is what reflects in his game – McCullum was fast and aggressive, Williamson is calm, sorted and an introvert. He never was, is and will be McCullum or come even close to his dynamic. Yet, he has taken New Zealand where McCullum took them four years ago. He now has a chance to better the man he succeeded as the leader of New Zealand and silence all doubters.
Williamson and his counterpart Morgan have plenty of similarities – they both expert the poker face, keep the humour quotient alive in press conferences and keep answers crisp and to the point. They’re contrasting batsmen though. Against South Africa, Williamson played out an epic inning with New Zealand stuck in a tricky chase of 241. The hundred against West Indies was an example of how a world-class batsman, more often than not, will eventually end up getting the better of a fairly-reasonable bowling attack. Williamson’s 67 against India was attritional, where he had to earn every run.
As for Morgan, his demolition of Afghanistan was glorious, where he hit 17 sixes and smashed a plethora of records in the process. But Morgan’s moment of truth will arrive when he walks out at the iconic Lord’s, with the hope of erasing England’s bitter, painful and heart-breaking memories at ICC events – The unlucky final of the 2004 Champions Trophy, the rain-affected loss of the 2013 Champions Trophy, the quarter-final elimination from the 2011 World Cup and worst, the terrible 2015 World Cup exit. One more win and Morgan can put to rest all demons.
Morgan had mentioned how England hope to inspire the next generation of cricketers. Exactly a year ago from the day when England outplayed Australia to reach the final, their men’s team had lost the semi-final of the FIFA World Cup. A week ago, their women’s team finished fourth after a frustrating loss to Sweden. On Sunday, the Wimbledon final features Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer and in the British Grand Prix, Britain’s very own Lewis Hamilton will be gunning for his record sixth BGP title. And despite that, all the focus will remain on Morgan.
“I haven’t allowed myself to think about lifting the trophy. Cricket and sport in particular is very fickle. If you ever get ahead, it always seems to bite you in the backside. For us to win it, I think around the country it would be awesome, great for the game. It means a huge amount to me and everybody in the changing room,” Morgan said on the eve of the final.
“It’s a culmination of four years of hard work, dedication, a lot of planning and it presents a huge opportunity to go on and try and win a World Cup. I think for everybody around the country, the support we’ve had throughout has been unquestionable and it makes you feel extremely lucky to be part of a team that has that sort of support.”
England have built their success over the last four years on the foundation of aggressive batting and high scoring, in many ways, following the example of New Zealand four years ago. It is no secret that Morgan and McCullum share a close relationship having spent years playing for Middlesex. They even embraced each other on the eve of the match which did not miss the keen eye of reporters.
“Brendon is a very good friend of mine. He spoke about us making the final and playing New Zealand because he had to fly home for the semi-final, but he was flying back if New Zealand made it, so he’s delighted that they did and he’s in good form,” he said.
“I think he has had quite a bit to do with (our progress). You could say about world cricket. We are close mates and he’s taught me a lot about leadership and I think in 2015 the way that New Zealand played, very similar to the way they are playing at the moment.”
Like England, expectations are sky high of New Zealand too. They have seen a lot of support come through. The last World Cup was at home and a lot of the attention was on their doorstep. They had crowds coming to every game which was really special and over here New Zealand have got a few scattered in amongst the majority of opposition crowds.
Still, what works in New Zealand’s favour, albeit a slight advantage, is that the gap between their two World Cup finals is four years, while England’s is almost three decades. They know what it takes to get there and what awaits them if the final hurdle is crossed. If Morgan has picked a few tricks from McCullum, Williamson played under him too.
“We’re just focussing on the sort of cricket that we want to play and hopefully that sort of performance despite being a final or a semifinal or a must-win or a five-match series, we still want to be putting out a strong performance that gives ourselves the best chance, whether you want to win something more than another day. I don’t think that’s always helpful,” the New Zealand skipper said.
To those who are not giving New Zealand much of a chance or calling them underdogs, Williamson’s message was clear: “Coming into this tournament from the start, England were favourites and they’ve been playing really good cricket. But whatever dog we are, it’s just important that we focus on the cricket that we want to play and we have seen over the years that anybody can beat anybody regardless of breed of dog.”
On Sunday, whatever happens, one thing is guaranteed. Cricket in either New Zealand or England will usher into a new direction. One team will win, the other will lose, which means that while there will be the euphoria of being crowned first-time World Cup winners, on the other corner, the disappointment of losing yet another final will hurt. It will be a long night in one of the two countries, whose long wait will, so appropriately, end.