World Beaters

September 4, 2019

Weeks before his Headingley Houdini heroics secured a remarkable victory over Australia to rekindle England’s Ashes flame, Ben Stokes was playing an equally crucial role in the country’s ICC Cricket World Cup triumph. Victory in the competition was the culmination of four years’ work to transform the country’s one-day side from perennial underachievers to global champions. Here, Steven Hugill speaks to Ben and his team-mate Mark Wood about the watershed success and the incredible finale that sealed England’s maiden success in the blue riband tournament

Lumley Castle has somewhat of a haunting past.

Its creator Sir Ralph Lumley may have survived skirmishes with the Scots, but he wasn’t so fortunate when he rebelled against Henry IV.

His wife Lily suffered an equally premature end,her fate said to have been sealed by two priests who threw her down a castle well for refusing Catholicism.

She, however, hasn’t gone quietly.

The legend goes that she haunts the 14th century Chester-le-Street building to this day, rising from her watery grave to spook guests at what is now a luxury hotel.

It’s perhaps ironic then that two Durham County Cricket Club players, their skills honed on pitches sat in the shadows of the castle where Lily’s myth perpetuates, were crucial contributors to a campaign that finally laid English cricket’s biggest ghost to rest.

“We don’t really understand what we’ve done yet,” admits Ben Stokes.

“It hasn’t sunk in and I’m not sure when it will.”

There is little wonder the imposing all-rounder needs some thinking time.

Since 1992, England’s impact in ICC World Cup competitions was negligible, their tenure in tournaments fleeting, their performances all too regularly fitful.

“I never thought anything like this would happen to me,” admits Ben’s fast bowling team- mate Mark Wood.

“It was absolutely epic; there were people in the dressing room crying after the final.”

Since its inception by North Yorkshireman Thomas Lord in the early 1800s, Lord’s Cricket Ground, set in London’s leafy St John’s Wood, has borne witness to countless memorable matches.

The captivating, crazy events of the World Cup final on Sunday, July 14 added another unforgettable chapter.

A tied 50-over one-day international match followed by a tied Super Over – the latter decided with a final ball run-out – meant England secured the trophy at New Zealand’s expense by virtue of scoring more boundaries during the sides’ initial innings.

Ben, who was born in New Zealand but moved to Cockermouth aged 12, dragged England to the six-ball shootout with an unbeaten 84.

It was not without drama, however.

As he attempted a second run, a fielder’s throw ricocheted off Ben’s glove and sped to the boundary, gifting England crucial extra runs that helped take them to the Super Over.

He then returned to the crease with wicket-keeper Jos Buttler, where he helped set the Kiwis a target of 16 for glory.

When batsman Martin Guptill – the man whose throw cannoned off Ben’s hand just minutes earlier – was run out chasing an improbable second run, the title was England’s.

Ben, who according to official figures covered nearly 13 miles in the final, fell to the floor in a mix of exultation and exhaustion, in the process breaking a pair of sunglasses he’d borrowed from Mark.

“The night went on for quite some time,” smiles Ben, who scored 465 runs in the tournament and took seven wickets.

“At the end of the 50 overs, I was frustrated because we got so close and didn’t complete the job properly off the last ball.

“So, when I was told I was going back out for the Super Over, I had to give myself five minutes away from everyone and the atmosphere of the ground.

“I went out the back, where the showers are and where it is quiet, to get my head switched back on because I knew I had to go out there and do the job,” adds Ben, whose deeds earned him the player of the match accolade.

“When we won, it was a brilliant feeling.

“It takes quite a long time after a game for the team to get together because the media wants reaction straightaway, so lads are here, there and everywhere.

“But, once we eventually got back to the changing room, it was like, ‘right, howay, let’s start the celebrations now.’

“We also had all of the families and friends come into the changing room, so we got to share the moment with them too, which was special,” adds Ben, who grabbed the headlines again in late August when he struck an unbeaten 135 to lead England to the unlikeliest of one-wicket Test Match victories over Australia at Headingley.

For Mark, who bowled the World Cup’s fastest delivery at 95.88mph, the experience was more traumatic.

The normally chipper Ashingtonian was left nauseous by the unfolding events.

“The pitch was difficult, which for the neutral probably meant a better game, but I certainly didn’t enjoy it,” he says.

“I felt physically sick thinking I might have to bat and that if Stokesy got out that I might have to hit a four or six to try and win the match,” remembers Mark, who was run out from the last ball of England’s 50-over innings after joining Ben in the middle.

“At times during the game I thought we were dead and buried, but to come back and show that strength of character was brilliant.

“You are always nervous but when you are out in the middle, you feel in semi control,” reveals Mark, who made his Durham debut in 2011.

“When you are just watching, as a human being and especially as an Englishman, you tend to overthink things and your mind starts racing, even erring towards the negative.

“Rather than thinking, ‘I could smash the winning runs and win the World Cup here,’ you think, ‘what happens if I get out?’, because you just don’t want to let anyone down.

“But I had every confidence in Ben.

“He was in the zone. His eyes were focused, and he had a stern look on his face; I knew he was pumped.

“It was perfection at the end of the game, and it was even better to share it with Ben, who is someone I’ve grown up with and is one of my close mates in the team.

“That made it all the more sweeter.

“When it was all over, we knew we had achieved something great and it was a fantastic night,” he continues.

“It was then that the emotions of the day really came out.

“We had reached the summit.”

As we chat in an office at Durham’s Chester-le- Street ground – officially known as the Emirates Riverside – the arena is looking more like itself. After hosting a number of World Cup group stage matches, including England versus New Zealand, the dust has settled from a whirlwind few weeks.

The physical environment has returned to normal – the ICC advertising hoardings used throughout the tournament have gone and Durham are back on home turf after time away to accommodate the tournament – but for English cricket, things will perhaps never be the same again.

As we talk, Ben and Mark are signing shirts, balls and programmes, their distinctive decorations giving the artefacts extra value.

I ask if the pressure of being an England player in a competition the hosts were favourite to win – after years of failure – had played on their minds?

It had for others.

When the television broadcaster used Freya Ridings’ single Castles – a song about rebuilding from a painful relationship – to accompany a montage of the final, it wasn’t an accidental choice.

From the moment England fell short in World Cup finals in 1979 and 1987, and then again versus Pakistan in 1992, the country and one-day cricket were always uncomfortable bedfellows on the biggest stage of all.

The litany of disappointments was long.

Chief among them was the 1999 contest when England, again as hosts, ignored the marketing executives’ upbeat vision for a ‘Carnival of Cricket’ and shuffled meekly out of the event before the competition’s official song was even released.

In 2007, cricketer-turned-Top Gear-host Andrew Flintoff usurped any on-field action when he embarked on a drunken late night pedalo expedition in search of Sir Ian Botham’s boat.

All he found was trouble and public indignation.

Arguably, however, the nadir came in 2015 when England were dismissed from the tournament having only defeated Scotland and Afghanistan.

Among their losses was a reversal to then co- hosts New Zealand with a barely believable 226 balls remaining.

Eoin Morgan, England’s Dublin-born captain who had only just taken the reins, carried the haunted look of a skipper lost in a raging sea.

Inspired in no small part by the aggression shown by rival nations, Morgan and the England hierarchy implemented a paradigm shift of attacking cricket headlined by batting belligerence.

That England were ranked as the premier side in one-day cricket ahead of their home World Cup – and were able to crown their renaissance with the grand title – owes a fair bit to those chastening events of 2015.

However, when the team lost consecutive games to Sri Lanka and Australia in the 2019 group
stage, leaving the side’s hopes in the balance, were previous scars at risk of re-opening?

“That was probably where we were at our lowest confidence-wise,” admits Mark, who claimed 18 wickets in the competition.

“We spoke before the tournament that on our good days we are going to have people telling us we are going to win it, and that on our bad days we will have them saying we are under pressure and that we couldn’t handle it.

“It was Eoin’s philosophy to keep us very level.

“The Sri Lanka game hurt us a lot, we were buzzed and hit hard by that. The Australia game probably had a bit of a hangover to it, but it made it very clear for us.

“We knew we had to win four games to win the World Cup.”

Ben too admits there was tension but says that using England’s post-2015 approach of embracing a challenge, rather than recoiling from it, helped the team through its tough spell.

“We wouldn’t have been happy unless we walked away with the trophy,” he says.

“Being ranked as favourites doesn’t mean you’re going to win the tournament – there is always pressure to perform – especially when you do as well as we did in the four-year period prior to the World Cup.

“But we embraced that as a team,” adds Ben.

With the notion of England’s new-found belief in mind, I ask Ben if the experiences of his past, particularly from another close final, helped him deal with the situation.

In 2016, England were denied a World Twenty20 title in India when West Indian Carlos Brathwaite struck Ben into the Kolkata crowd for four consecutive sixes.

As Brathwaite, mobbed by his team-mates, released a guttural celebratory roar, an ashen- faced Ben slumped to his haunches.

So, does his 2019 Lord’s experience represent grand final redemption?

“It was a disappointing night in 2016, but I had to put it to bed,” says Ben.

“The thing about sport is that you do something in a game and then you have the next game to focus on.

“It is what you have to do with good performances as well; you cannot rely on your last performance to get you anywhere.

“You’ve got to sweep everything under the carpet and start again.”

If England’s World Cup success represented a watershed moment in the 50-over game, it also left an indelible mark on the sport in this country.

A winning team means increased exposure and interest, and England’s triumph slingshotted cricket into the public consciousness.

When England’s 2019 heroes look back on their careers, they will have their medals and memories of the bond they forged to take the country to the zenith of the world game.

But they will also be safe in the knowledge, adds Ben, that they attracted a new generation to the game.

“I’ve had so many people come to me and say, ‘I didn’t watch or like cricket but I do now, that game had me glued to the TV’”, reveals Ben, who scored a century in England’s second Test Match against Australia last month upon his return to Lord’s.

“When people are saying they took no interest in cricket but are now into it, that is an overwhelming thing to think about.

“It stands the game in great stead for the future and hopefully we can inspire the kids who watch us to go out and do what we did.

“It feels great that we have managed to make people love the game.”

Durham County Cricket Club

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