Even the most ardent traditionalist must admit this has been a scintillating T20 World Cup. The standard of the cricket has frequently been superb. No longer is T20 a thrash and dash or hit and miss. It is now a game blessed with a potent mix of power, deft touches, ego and elegance with the batting, extraordinary speed and athleticism with the fielding and cunning with the ball.
It has been quite a show and England, who meet West Indies in the final today, have played a full part in the entertainment. Could they really win? A team of youngsters with an out-of-form captain playing a style of the game that is apparently played much better everywhere else in the world.
West Indies must be favourites. They won the corresponding group game with a virtuoso display of hitting by Chris Gayle and have a group of players who have played T20 cricket across the globe. The West Indies Cricket Board and its players have been at loggerheads for many years with money, or lack of it the main gripe. The players have responded by pursuing every T20 league and therefore have much more experience of the game than their English counterparts.
They are a superb batting outfit as shown by the chase down of India’s formidable total in the semi-final. Gayle was dismissed early but a man who had only just flown in, Lendl Simmons, batted West Indies to victory with an innings that stunned both the Indian players and the massive parochial crowd.
So, in a battle of two powerful batting line-ups, it may be left to a bowler to be a hero.
England’s progress has actually been as much to do with their improvement in the final five overs in the field than it is with the batting of Joe Root, Jos Buttler and Jason Roy. Ben Stokes, one of the most angry, aggressive competitors England cricket has ever enjoyed and Chris Jordan have fired in yorkers to well-set fields. Get it slightly wrong and the ball becomes an easy hit. Get it right and it strangles a batter who is set, feet splayed in a baseball stance trying to get a savage and swift full swing of the bat through the hitting zone.
But maybe it will be the spin duo of Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid that stifle the Caribbean machine. The Afghanistan spinners completely bamboozled the West Indian middle order and forged an astonishing victory. Yes, just like England there can be a fragility to West Indies which only makes this final more compelling. Both sides can thrill as demonstrated by West Indies defeating India and England chasing 230 for a most improbable win against South Africa. But both can stutter as well, their freewheeling aggression resulting not in flurries of boundaries but a sequence of wickets.
It could come down to one moment, a big hit that was brilliantly caught on the boundary or an over of perfect yorkers and deceptive slower ball bouncers, a moment to crown a most compelling tournament.
Whoever wins – and for both sides they would become the first team to have won the T20 World Cup for a second time – there is a much greater prize. For England, with the current reviews of all cricket being held by the ECB, there is a chance to reinvigorate the sport and reconnect it with the public. There are heroes now. Root, Hales, Roy, Jordan, Morgan, Moeen and so on are champions to the young and deserve to be paraded as such. The best way to do that and inject a lot of money into English cricket is to create a franchise T20 tournament for the middle of the summer. Make it rich and make it exclusive so the very best in the world will play. The Big Bash in Australia is a perfect template with matches at Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne attracting crowds of 50,000 and upwards. For a domestic cricket match that is ridiculous and shows how a well-marketed, high-quality T20 tournament can enthuse the paying public and the children, the next generation of players and fans.
It could happen in England in a three-week block in the height of summer. It must be exclusive, so no Test matches, and make it free to air and family friendly. At three hours, it is not too long for national broadcasters and, with maybe 10 franchises in major cities, there will be plenty of bums on seats, especially if, like the Big Bash, it is made attractive to families.
That would be a fitting legacy for the young stars that have performed so admirably for England in India this past month.
For West Indies it is time the cricket board actually came up with a plan for the region that incorporated the players’ interests. New Zealand and Sri Lanka have managed to help the players earn money via T20 around the world but also retain them for international cricket. They have done it through sensible negotiation and an understanding of both points of view.
West Indies need to do likewise for the benefit of the sport in the region. World cricket needs a vibrant Caribbean cricket culture and that means in all forms of the game.
For the players, though, today is about crucial inches, fast swings and diving stops. Both sides have illuminated this fantastic tournament. It is a shame, but the nature of sport that only one can lift the trophy.