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Officiating snafu only sweetens England's Cricket World Cup win

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Tuesday, July 16, 2019 – Page B11


Everyone is coming around to the idea that Sunday's Cricket World Cup final between England and New Zealand was the greatest match of all time.

Once that's done, they can decide whether it was turned by the greatest officiating error in cricket history.

Start to finish, the whole encounter was unusual. First, England won, which never happens.

How it won was also a wonder. In the final moments, England needed nine runs from three deliveries in order to tie it. That's a tough ask.

The English batsman, Ben Stokes, knocked a hard-hit line drive in the vicinity of a New Zealand fielder. Under normal circumstances, Stokes and his batting partner would not have attempted two passes between the wickets. The risk of being thrown out was too great. But given the situation, they pushed their luck.

A barrelling Stokes leapt headfirst toward the wicket as the throw came in. His bat was held out in front of him.

The ball hit the bat and caromed toward the boundary ringing the ground. There was no question of this being done on purpose. Stokes's back was turned to the throw as it came in.

At this point, the elaborate courtesy of cricket comes into play. Stokes had taken an unfair advantage, however inadvertently. In replays, you can see him rise to his feet with his hands held out pleadingly, already seeking forgiveness.

By rule, the error is on the thrower. But the batsman knows he has done wrong. He could continue running, but the shame would mark him forever. So neither Stokes nor his partner, Adil Rashid, budged.

However, since the ball was not stopped before it struck the boundary, a penalty was automatically assessed. Four runs for the error and two for the runs themselves, for a total of six (the equivalent score of cricket's version of the home run).

England went on to tie the game. It won in what's called a super over. Cue national hysteria.

The joy in victory was made sweeter by the bizarro nature of the comeback. For the first time since 1966, sporting fortune had shone on England.

Perhaps more so than it had initially thought.

On Monday, here comes galactic party-pooper Simon Taufel.

Taufel, an Australian, is widely considered the best umpire of the most recent era.

According to Taufel, a critical oversight was made. Despite his leap, Stokes had not yet crossed the line when the ball arrived, and so had not technically scored. Instant replay was conclusive in this regard.

By cricket standards (and, as you can probably tell from the above, I am no expert), this is apparently an extraordinary chain of events. It gets you into some Talmudic interpretation of the laws of the game.

I could quote the relevant rule here, but if you are not a deep adherent, it would make about as much sense to you as a Sanskrit mortgage application.

Add in that all this interpretation had to be done in real time, on the sport's brightest stage, whilst under crushing pressure to get it right. That's precisely when things tend to go wrong.

Understandable then, that the officials got it wrong. No one else noticed either. Not until Taufel weighed in on Monday.

"It was a clear mistake," he told an Australian Fox affiliate. "[England] should have been awarded five runs, not six."

As they say around the tea cart at Lord's Cricket Ground of a Sunday: Oh dear.

There are two ways of looking at this.

There is the sports nut way - rules is rules; this trophy is besmirched; decent people wouldn't touch it with gloves on; England ought to apologize; the umpires should be sacked, never allowed to work again and forced to wander the Earth until they die.

Then there is the real-life way.

In theory, sports are a wonderful fantasyland in which merit trumps all else. The most gifted and hardest working win in the end. The scoreboard does not lie.

But, y'know, of course it does.

Not in terms of whole numbers, but in the sense of conveying the essence of what happened.

For all their talk to the contrary, sports cannot but be bound by the base considerations of human existence. People cheat, they lie and they get things horribly wrong. Sometimes all three at once. Just like the people you know (or are) do.

That's why we like sports. Because they are normal life, only more. The morality is amplified and simplified - my side (Good) versus your side (Evil). There are clear rules bounding this fight, rules we often don't have in our day to day (which is why most of us are so confused all the time).

The role of the officials in this Manichaean battle is not to get things right (booooring), but every once in a while to get things wrong. That's where chaos exists, tilting momentum away from good and toward evil, or vice versa.

This happens nightly in games that do not matter and we discuss it far more than the games themselves. Because great feats are foreign to us plebes, but great screwups we know about. We have many strong opinions on people who get things wrong for a living.

But on this stage? At this point? Turning this result? This isn't an error. It's the Mardi Gras of debating points. They'll be talking about this in the cricket world until the sun explodes.

In the full context of his remarks, the delightful troublemaker at the heart of this gave us the way out.

While pointing out the mistake, Taufel also said the officials at the match were not to blame, considering they did not get the benefit of replay.

And who knows what would have happened in those last two deliveries had England needed four instead of three? And what might then have happened at any point after that? If you undo that call, you put yourself in butterflies-and-hurricanes territory.

Now we'll have to see if anybody kicks up a fuss. Given that cricket is the last true, stiff-upperlip game being played, that's doubtful.

The real-life way is best. Let us concede that matters were affected by history's least blameworthy, most game-changing refereeing gaffe. And then move on.

For me, this twist only adds to the lustre of the occasion. Because now that final didn't just contain within it most of what makes sport great. It held it all.

Associated Graphic

English batsman Ben Stokes dives forward to make his ground and score a now-controversial six runs in the Cricket World Cup final against New Zealand at Lord's Cricket Ground in London on Sunday.


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