On a grey Sunday evening the sun came out at Lord’s and the golden hour came.
When you love sport, you understand how it can take you to places little else can. You could watch it all your life and never quite fathom what happened between 6.30 and 7.30pm in two sun-kissed rectangles of grass seven or so miles apart across England’s capital city. A World Cup final that might just be the greatest game of cricket in history, a Wimbledon men’s final longer than any that has come before.
Because this was summer’s sporting day of days, they stepped hand in hand. You couldn’t watch and you couldn’t look away. You hated it and you loved it and you lost yourself completely to it. No-one had ever seen Lord’s like this, a beautiful sedate museum turned into a cavorting mess. No-one had really seen cricket like this.
There is a line often brought out when sport does these sorts of things – you couldn’t write this – and a hoary riposte: haven’t you seen Star Wars, or read Harry Potter?
On a day when sometimes nothing appeared to make sense, both these contradictory positions became true. You couldn’t write it, because it was a plotline too twisted to make dramatic sense, too confusing, too remote from what has gone before.
We’re OK with spaceships and child wizards because they have been imagined before. Plenty had dreamed of England winning the World Cup. That’s where logic waved farewell.
A match that ended in a tie to produce a tie-breaker that also ended in a tie. A final over that contained a six that was a six and also contained a six that wasn’t a six at all but actually a two and a four, which meant the final over wasn’t the final over any more either.
When you try to navigate your way through those 60 hallucinogenic minutes you keep coming up against these impossible riddles: New Zealand’s Martin Guptill facing the first ball of the match and the last one too; a tournament that England’s men had never won before won with a winning margin that wasn’t even a winning margin.
Seven weeks of cricket and it came down to the final dusty half-metre at the spiritual home of the sport. A final that for so long was slow-motion cricket ending at a pace that took the breath from your lungs and the strength from your legs. Cricket that was a throwback to 20 years ago suddenly leaping into the unknown. It was unprecedented and it was also a very English way to win a World Cup.
Extra time at Wembley in 1966, extra time in Sydney in 2003. A champagne super over in London, that strange comforting familiarity of feeling absolutely awful watching England do something you had always hoped they might. Eoin Morgan’s men were supposed to be rompers in this tournament. They were the demolition men who took on big totals and danced across the finish line.
You knew deep down it was never going to be easy. It never is with England. You just didn’t know it was going to be this hard. There were scoring rates from the late 1990’s and an innings perfectly pitched to that fragile, panicked era of England one-day batting, as if the cavalier swordsmen of the current team had been replaced by a cricketing historical re-enactment society.
Romp? It was like a four-hour penalty shootout, at least until it became a shootout, at which point England’s final over felt like a lifetime and then produced one more for each side that took another half-hour. Panic on the posh streets of London, panic in the living-rooms of the nation.
As the contest swung one way then the other and then back again, Lord’s was awash with pacers – men and women walking, hopping, striding purposely to nowhere at all. As Ben Stokes dragged England to the brink, into the abyss and then out again, a country had long forgotten that watching sport is supposed to be fun.
All the while, horrible sums. 100 needed from 88. 80 from 66. 65 off 48, people standing up to cheer a wide.
It was 44 from 26 as the final hour began. Men in crisp cotton shirts and chinos swigging pink champagne direct from the bottle. 39 off 24, 34 needed off the last three overs, 24 off two. The 50th over began at 6.55. 15 runs required. Two balls later, 15 needed from four, and then, in two balls and four minutes, came 12 impossible runs.
At 7pm, England needed two to win. Mark Wood was run out by a mile, and so the final act began: a World Cup into its first ever super over at the same time as a Wimbledon final went into its first ever fifth-set tie-breaker. Both teams thought they had it won and lost in the tumult of the final 12 balls, just as both Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer could feel the Wimbledon trophy in their hands.
At some distant forgotten point in the afternoon the hero was going to be Liam Plunkett until it was Colin de Grandhomme, at least until Jos Buttler took over, and then the super over began and it was suddenly Stokes until it was Buttler, except it was then Jimmy Neesham and then Jofra Archer and then Jason Roy and Buttler all over again. You realised as that final throw came in from Roy to his wicketkeeper to leave Guptill and New Zealand that tiny, vast distance short that you were lucky to have seen it and that cricket was lucky to have conjured it.
Fourteen long years since the last live England game on free-to-air television, a day for the converted to testify, a chance for a whole new generation to feel the unique horrors and joys of watching England play cricket. You felt like putting an arm around the new devotees in the giddy aftermath. It’s not always like this. But it can do exactly this to you.
It was awful for New Zealand, fancied by no-one, so close to pulling off one of the great upsets with a brand of cricket that felt archaic until it made perfect sense. It was no sort of compensation for the brilliant Kane Williamson to be awarded man of the tournament. But it was wonderful for England, four years on from their humiliation in Adelaide at the last World Cup, and it was redemption for all those who have followed them and hoped and suffered along the way.
So much happened in the golden hour that you struggle to hold on to discrete images. But there is one England supporters will never forget: 11 men in pale blue, chasing wild circles on the green Lord’s outfield as the stumps lay splattered and Guptill knelt beside them, the ancient pavilion dancing, the shadows stretching, the World Cup – after 44 long years – finally won.