James Wilson, New Zealand supporter and author of Court and Bowled: Tales of Cricket and the Law, is back. Here’s his take on that controversial 2019 Cricket World Cup final in which boundaries scored decided the outcome. 

Twenty years ago, Australia and South Africa played what was then widely acclaimed as the greatest one day international of all time, when they tied in the semi-final of the 1999 World Cup. There were several reasons for the match being given that accolade: the importance of the fixture, the closeness of the play throughout, and the absurdly bathetic ending. Both sides contained a number of genuine greats – Donald, Pollock and Kallis of South Africa, Gilchrist, Warne, both Waughs and McGrath of Australia – and they almost entirely cancelled each other out. Donald and Pollock strangled the Australian batting as though they were evil and capricious lawmen oppressing a small Wild West town, before Warne burst into the saloon like a gun-toting Clint Eastwood and mercilessly cut a swathe through the South African posse. It all ended in a Tarantinoesque finale with Klusener slugging it out in a bloodbath of boundaries and wickets with the Australian bowlers in the last frantic overs before joining with Donald to make an awful hash of the would-be winning run. Although the match finished with the scores level, Australia went through to the final thanks to the rather dubious factor of their superior net run rate in the tournament to that point.

More than 2,700 one day matches have been played since that June 1999 epic, but it is only now that we have a ‘new greatest match’. In the final of the 2019 World Cup, England and New Zealand played a game instantly declared to be superior even to 1999. The reasons were that the 2019 match was one better in terms of importance, given it was the actual final, one better in terms of ties – since there were two, first the match itself and then in the ‘super over’ – and several better in terms of controversy, pathos and bathos, since there were multiple ‘how could that have happened’ moments with the match being decided on a boundaries scored rule so bizarre it made net run rate seem the height of fairness by comparison.

In the 1999 match, the key moments included Warne bending the laws of physics (his dismissal of Gibbs was a close blood relation, if not an out-and-out clone, of the Gatting ball); Reifell helping a thunderous Klusener hit over the boundary when he could have won the match by holding on to the catch; and of course the hapless runout to finish it all.

Earlier in the game, there had been at least one dubious umpiring moment, when the later-to-become-notorious South African captain Hanse Cronje was wrongly given out. Importantly, however, no-one felt any injustice had been done, nor did anyone much complain about the net run rate rule being used. The reason was that everyone knew South Africa could and should have won the match in spite of everything if only Donald and Klusener had communicated properly instead of the former staying in his ground before dropping his bat. South Africa were deemed to have been the authors of their own misfortune and earned themselves years of taunting as ‘chokers’ accordingly.

Not so New Zealand in 2019. They might not have had anything approaching the number of greats in their side that the 1999 Australians and South Africans mustered (although Kane Williamson surely deserves that accolade), but in the style of so many Kiwi underdog sides before, they used intelligence, teamwork, unflagging dedication and coolness under pressure to compete with a more fancied side. If the dictionary were to offer an antonym for ‘chokers’ (digesters? swallowers?), ‘New Zealand cricketers’ would be the first example given under the definition. The Kiwi batsmen correctly reasoned that a decent total on a difficult pitch would be a better objective in the circumstances than trying to break records, so they cautiously accumulated a total very similar to the one India had failed to reach in their semi-final. Then their bowlers and fielders executed careful plans to prevent any of the predicted English pyrotechnics. Their game plan was therefore an astute one, and nobody could have predicted that it would end up being punished by the random boundaries scored rule.

England, for their part, bowled and fielded equally well, while Buttler and Stokes with the bat kept their heads just as the better Kiwi players had. There was also no mistake by the English fielders on the final ball of the super over and so the spirit of Donald and Klusener remained dormant.

The pressure of the game on all concerned could be measured by the fact that even the extremely fit Stokes was visibly shattered by the end, though he still somehow found the wherewithal to clout an incredible six in the last over, and would not be denied his role in the super over. All told, his efforts and those of his teammates were just enough to get England home.

Except they weren’t. England did not score any more runs than New Zealand. Nor did they take any more wickets – in fact, they took fewer. In no proper cricketing sense, therefore, did New Zealand lose the match. Instead, England was declared champions of the world on the basis of having scored more boundaries in the final – a statistic that I doubt a single person out of the millions watching would have been able to recite with confidence at the end of the match, because it is not a statistic with any cricketing significance. It felt to me as though the inventors of that boundaries scored rule never seriously thought it would actually be needed. And that justifies a closer look at some of the other rules in play in the match. It is unfortunate to have to rake over umpiring decisions and tournament rules after an all-time classic match, but we have to do so if only to ensure there is no repeat in future tournaments.

The first problem came with the very first ball of England’s innings, when Jason Roy should have been dismissed lbw by Trent Boult. The umpire signalled ‘not out’ and New Zealand reviewed. Even though DRS review showed the ball hitting the stumps, it was close enough for ‘umpire’s call’ to stand. I have never understood the concept of ‘umpire’s call’. To be sure, benefit of the doubt should always be given to the batsman – an age-old cricket rule – but isn’t the whole point of technology that there isn’t any ‘doubt’?

The next piece of controversy came at the end of the innings, when a return throw from New Zealand hit the bat of a diving Ben Stokes and carried on for four. Added to the two runs completed by the batsmen, England had six more to their total and – equally importantly – Stokes on strike. No-one blamed Stokes, either at the time or since – he wasn’t looking at the ball and all the video evidence showed he would not have had the faintest idea where it was. Even so, he immediately signalled an apology to the New Zealanders and to the spectators. Convention dictates that the batsmen do not run to take conscious advantage of their own good fortune in circumstances such as those. But if the ball runs into the boundary – as it did on this occasion – then the runs are awarded to the batting side. That seems unfair enough, though as I argued in Court and Bowled, there is no shortage of other examples of inconsistencies in cricketing conventions. Life – especially cricket – has to allow for a bit of illogicality where history, tradition and convention are concerned.

Yet there was a second problem with that incident – England should have been awarded five, not six runs. The relevant law is 19.8 ‘Overthrow or wilful act of fielder’, which provides:

If the boundary results from an overthrow or from the wilful act of a fielder, the runs scored shall be any runs for penalties awarded to either side, and the allowance for the boundary, and the runs completed by the batsmen, together with the run in progress if they had already crossed at the instant of the throw or act. (Emphasis added).

The key point is ‘if they had already crossed at the instant of the throw or act’. Video evidence showed they had not at the time of the throw. The word ‘act’ clearly refers to the ‘act of a fielder’ as in the first time the word is used in the sentence, not the ‘act’ of Stokes. What Stokes did was not an ‘act’ but an accident; had he done it deliberately he would have been dismissed for obstructing the field. England should only have been awarded five and Stokes should have been sent to the non-striker’s end.

Having said that, I would class the extra run as the result of an umpiring error on the field, and it is a defining principle of sports law – not just in cricket – that officials may not reverse errors made during the match, even in the face of unequivocal video evidence. Is that inconsistent with my objection to the ‘umpire’s call? I would argue no, for two reasons: first, the ‘umpire’s call’ comes during the course of play, not after the match; and second, there is no point allowing a set number of video reviews but having some arbitrary circumstances where they are not enforced. I would not wish the umpire’s role to be wholly eviscerated, so would not increase the number of reviews allowed at the moment, but I would scrap the ‘umpire’s call’ exception which normally causes confusion and aggrievement for spectators in equal measure.

It is anyone’s guess as to what would have happened if Roy had been given out. Nor can we say for certain what would have happened if five rather than six runs had been awarded to Stokes, although since he would have been stranded at the non-strikers’ end it would have almost certainly been fatal to England. Both incidents, however, can be dismissed as the rub of the game, like any number of umpiring errors in games past. Certainly, Kane Williamson was keen afterwards not to blame the outcome on either event. But that brings us to what did decide the result of the match: the super over followed by the ludicrous boundaries scored rule.

The first question is whether a tiebreak should have been required at all. Under some rules in one day matches past, the side losing the fewest wickets would be declared the winner. In the early 1980s, in one of the rather drawn out Benson & Hedges World Series tournaments played in Australia, West Indies celebrated what they thought was a win in those circumstances, only to be told that wickets lost did not count and they had to play another match. Anyone could see which television magnate would have been backing that rule for commercial reasons. At the least, wickets are at the very heart of winning or losing cricket, and such a rule would thus resonate with cricketing traditionalists. I doubt many would have complained if the 2019 final had been decided accordingly rather than on a random boundaries scored basis.

Cricket today, however, is not run by traditionalists, but by those in thrall to media sorts such as the late Mr Packer, and so there is no question the super over was invented to ensure extra ratings for extra time. Someone probably had one eye on football penalty shootouts as well. I cannot imagine that many footballing traditionalists (I am not one myself) enjoy seeing major events such as the 1994 World Cup final being decided on penalties, but on the other hand the penalty shootout has been around for a very long time and can be said to form part of footballing tradition, whatever suffering it might have inflicted upon English supporters over the years. There is also no understating the drama of the shootout as well.

It was therefore fair enough cricket to try something similar, at least in the form of fifty over cricket, which has always been about football-style razzamatazz and instant gratification first and cricketing purity some way back. But was boundaries scored really the best way of doing this?

I also find no fault in the batting side facing the first super over, which was a factor annoying one or two other commentators. I actually thought it gave the advantage to New Zealand, all of whose players were on the pitch concentrating intently at the end of the match, while all Englishmen apart from the two at the crease at the end would have assumed – some for several hours – that their match was over. It must have been quite something for Buttler and Archer to be given ten minutes to get ready. (Incidentally, I felt that Williamson’s only mistake of the match was in failing to come out himself for New Zealand; as their captain and best batsman he should have shouldered the burden). No one had complained about the rule beforehand either, which of course applied equally to both sides – and it was New Zealand who won the toss.

Nevertheless, I cannot accept what happened next. After the tie in the super over, England was declared the winner for the number of boundaries scored – something that is never relevant in any other determination of any other cricket match. In no sense does boundaries scored signify a superior performance – many a masterful innings of quick running and fine judgement has surpassed in quality a few biffs and lucky edges by a lower order slogger. As I said earlier, I wonder if a single person watching the game would have been aware of the number of boundaries hit, nor would they have cared.

So what should have happened? Perhaps nothing at all – it has been argued that the cup could have been shared (an opinion also held by the rather conflicted Kiwi father of Ben Stokes). No one could have called that an injustice, but then again I cannot think of any other world championship – team or individual sport – where that would be possible, and I doubt enough fans or officials would buy it. So we need to choose a winner.

The aforementioned ‘fewer wickets’ method would have been better than the boundary count, if not entirely satisfactory because cricket is otherwise always won by runs scored not wickets taken. New Zealand would then have been the winner.

As a second alternative, the win could have been awarded to whichever side won the head-to-head during the first round, which on this occasion was England.

Thirdly, it could be whoever finished top of the table, reflecting the fact that the match formed part of a World Cup tournament, not a one-off. Again, that would have handed the trophy to England.

Fourthly, we could go back to net run rate, which did for South Africa all those years ago, and would have done for New Zealand this time around.

But I think there is a fifth – and better – idea. If cricket is going to follow football, it might as well go the whole way and do the same as in a penalty shootout, which is to keep going until there is a winner on the field. Another super over should therefore have been bowled, and more after that if necessary. Perhaps cricket might ape football still further and require new batsmen and bowlers for each super over, thus raising the amusing prospect of a very part time bowler getting to send down the deciding over to a tail end batsman. That way, at least, an unambiguously cricketing result would be achieved.

Either way, on my five alternative scenarios, England would have won three, New Zealand one, with one completely imponderable (playing further super overs). Does that suggest England were worthy winners? I have to concede it does. If New Zealand did not deserve to lose, neither did England. There really was nothing between the sides on the day. England had the better tournament overall. Not many neutral supporters would have been exhibiting sympathy had it been Australia losing the final through a succession of errors and technicalities. But because New Zealand have played in such an exemplary fashion over the past few eras – the McCullum captaincy in particular earned many accolades, especially in England – there was much commiserating by English and neutral supporters alike.

Furthermore, good fortune did not win England the World Cup, any more than Shane Warne’s drop at the Oval lost Australia the Ashes in 2005. Instead, a brilliant reinvention of their entire limited overs philosophy after the 2015 World Cup embarrassment led England first to be pre-tournament favourites and ultimately winner of the tournament. And thus the good New Zealand sportsmanship must continue and extend to congratulating England as worthy winners – even if the boundaries scored rule was ultimately an unfortunate way to rubber stamp their fantastic achievement.

I wish I could leave it there. But two final complaints have to be made, not at players but officialdom. I have just mentioned the 2005 Ashes, still the greatest cricketing achievement in English history (test matches must always exist on a substantially higher plane of importance). It was also the last significant cricket event to be broadcast on free to air television until the 2019 final, both shown on Channel 4. If anyone in the ECB thinks there is a sound defence of that state of affairs, they have yet to tell us what it might be.

Secondly, as much as the whole day made for compelling viewing – I for one saw nearly every ball – it would have been nice to have seen the very good event that was the British Grand Prix and the genuinely great one that was the Wimbledon men’s singles final, the latter event rivalling even the cricket for drama and historical importance. Which genius put all three events on the same day?

© James Wilson 2019

*Since this article was written the ICC have abolished the boundaries scored rule. Future games with a tied super over will now be decided by further super overs until a winner emerges – just as James suggests. (Editor).