If you think Ben Stokes’s bowling was to blame, try hitting four consecutive sixes in front of a global television audience, in the final over, to win a world title when all seems lost. Try it with full tosses, or even with tennis balls. The truth is that what Carlos Brathwaite did at the end of the World Twenty20 final was astounding and inspired.
For many years now T20 cricket has been fetishising crazy run chases and violent batting. But in Brathwaite’s assault on Stokes’s final over we saw belligerence ascend to another level.
Here in Britain, television audiences were absorbing another win for Leicester at the top of the Premier League (the miracle is still rolling) when they turned their gaze to England’s clash against the West Indies. After Leicester, who could be shocked by anything?
Well, Brathwaite gave us something to remember for all our days. Bang, bang, bang and bang again. The life drained from Stokes as sweat drenched his already perspiring body, and he squeezed his eyes open and shut, his mind in a churn: how did that just happen, how could that be possible?
It was horrible for England, in sporting terms, after their “all guns blazing cricket” had lifted them from the nadir of 12 months ago, when they lost to Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in the group stage of the Cricket World Cup. Moeen Ali, Alex Hales, Joe Root, Eoin Morgan, Jos Buttler and Chris Jordan all played in that Bangladesh fixture.
Yet English cricket found a quick route out of despair, with a surge in favour of freedom of expression. That culture shift elevated Root, Buttler and, yes, Stokes, who is a great asset to the English game in all its forms, regardless of what Brathwaite did to him in Kolkata.
Root’s 54 after a poor start by England in a score of 155 for nine put just enough pressure on the West Indies to create the possibility of a barnburning finish. England must have thought a second chance had dropped from the gods. But there is no legislating in Twenty20, or in life, for the kind of grace under pressure Brathwaite laid before our eyes.
If this is to be the new direction of West Indies cricket – hired guns, blasting their way round the 20-over circuit – then it will bring some compensation for their loss of influence in the Test arena. And in all senses Brathwaite was a symbol of something lost but also found, in the new context of crowd-stunning, bludgeoning play.
His first six sent a shiver of trepidation through England. The second was a punch in the guts. The third rendered a West Indies victory inevitable. The fourth was entirely unnecessary, since Brathwaite’s team needed only one more run to win. By then there was no halting his exuberance. Who is to say that if Stokes had bowled the last two balls, Brathwaite would not have sent them into the stands too?
World Cup finals are usually settled by single scores or tactics or moments of fortune. Brathwaite on the other hand took an axe to the odds and a scythe to Stokes’s bowling, which was designed, presumably, to cramp the batsman up around his leg stump. Instead, the new hero of world cricket shifted his body into a position where a huge arc of his arms would lift each delivery far over the heads of England’s fielders and into the steaming grandstands.
No matter how good or bad the bowling, to be this audacious, this precise, four times in a row when a World Cup is on the line, requires a kind of intrepidness most of us will never know. To fixate on the faults in Stokes’s bowling is to overlook a masterpiece of violent but also sensational hitting, which somehow failed to win Brathwaite the prize for man of the match (that went to Samuels).
One day England may reflect that they were simply on the wrong end of freakish human nerve. For now they will think this was a terrible way to lose. It was actually a very good way, because they were destroyed by brilliance: a quality to which they aspire.