Friday, 8 April 2016

World Twenty20 reflections

Friday, 8 April 2016
Four balls, four sixes. The final was over, just like that. A final full of twists and turns; ups, downs, and ups again; forty overs filled with drama. England found themselves in a strong position with the West Indies needing 19 runs from the last six balls, but Carlos Brathwaite only needed four of those to pull off a spectacular win. It was one of those brilliant, freakish innings that you can't count on to happen, and yet happen they do. England, and especially the bowler Ben Stokes, were left heartbroken. For the West Indies, it was time to celebrate.

But as painful as that final turned out to be, to finish the tournament as runners up is still a great achievement for this very young England side. It was a team that had made tonnes of progress over the past year, but over which there were still plenty of questions to be answered, plenty of new tests to be had. It was a team with minimal experience of playing in India, and a side that still seemed to be searching for its best eleven. It was a team filled with the optimism of youth and promising results over the past year, but whose confidence might easily have been dented by a Twenty20 series defeat in South Africa, with many also involved as a 2-0 lead was surrendered in the ODI series. It was a team that had the potential to do something, but just as much potential to crash out in dramatic fashion.

And after a game and a half, it was the latter that seemed the most likely outcome. An opening loss to a Chris Gayle-inspired West Indies, and the tall task of chasing down 230 against South Africa. The tournament had barely begun and England were already facing an uphill task to make it through to the next stage.

But there was Joe Root, and Jason Roy, and Jos Buttler. The total was, unbelievably, chased down. That mantra of no fear, to always play with confidence and aggression, didn't look quite so foolish as it sometimes could. This was a team that backed themselves, a team on the up. They stumbled against Afghanistan but they still came on through, then delivered two of their best and most complete performances in matches against Sri Lanka and New Zealand - the first an effective knock out game, the second being the semi final.

The players were coming through, making their mark on the big stage. The ones you'd expect - Joe Root and Jos Buttler making key innings with the bat, Ben Stokes taking on key overs at the death. And then those perhaps less heralded faces. Chris Jordan, often maligned, but who has turned into England's main man with the ball at the death of an innings. Liam Plunkett, in and out of the side, but becoming England's most economical bowler once he found his way back in. David Willey, England's leading wicket taker who earned a spot in the team of the tournament. Jason Roy was another rising England star who made that team (Root and Buttler being the other England men), his innings of 78 against New Zealand being a particular highlight.

The final, well, it was a bit of a rollercoaster. 23/3 down in the powerplay, a recovery led by Root and Buttler, then further stumbles, comebacks, and stumbles. 155/9 was a total that didn't quite look enough, but at the same time a decent total considering the start they made. And it looked a better total after Joe Root - of all people - opened the bowling and dismissed both openers Johnson Charles and Chris Gayle. England were taking wickets and keeping things tight, but they couldn't budge Marlon Samuels, his 85* keeping West Indies in the game. But still, with 19 required from the last six balls, England had to be the favourites. Then there was Carlos Brathwaite.

Ben Stokes will be hurting after that final, after that over. But it's what sport is about: those amazing moments for one team that are so heartbreaking for the other side; those setbacks and how the person responds. Stokes has already had his share of setbacks in his brief career, and still has come back to do brilliant things. And I would back him again, he will learn from this experience and come back stronger.

Yet still, England can be proud of their performance in this tournament. For an unfancied, unproven team to get to the final - and come so close to winning the thing - is still an achievement, and bodes well for the future. There might still be some maturity to learn, but already they are showing the potential to beat anyone and challenge at the top. And if you compare the team now to how they were after the 50 over World Cup, things are almost unrecognisable. What a difference a year makes. Hopefully the upward curve will only continue.

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