For West Indies supporters, the inquest will continue for some time after Saturday’s drama-filled, five-run loss to New Zealand in a contest widely considered the best of the 2019 ICC World Cup so far.
The day/night game at Old Trafford had appeared to be meandering to a straightforward victory for New Zealand when West Indies were 164-7 in reply to 291-8.
But on a rare day of sunshine and fairly clear skies so far in this English summer it was transformed into a riveting spectacle as West Indies all-rounder Carlos Brathwaite launched a breathtaking assault that dragged his team within a whisker of completing an incredible comeback.
There were individual performances of gigantic proportions throughout. Kane Williamson, the New Zealand captain, made a fantastic hundred — his second in as many games — to win the player of the match award.
The West Indies left-arm seamer Sheldon Cottrell was electric with the ball and in the field, playing a role in seven of eight dismissals. He claimed wickets at vital moments, completed catches, sharply executed a run-out, and held on stubbornly with the bat to give West Indies a chance when all seemed lost.
Before Brathwaite’s heroic, maiden One-Day International century, West Indies batsmen Christopher Gayle and Shimron Hetmyer had both struck half-centuries to shock the run chase into life after a sluggish start.
New Zealand’s left-arm, ace pace bowler Trent Boult grabbed four wickets to damage the West Indies momentum more than once.
Brathwaite’s planning and tremendous hitting were equally impressive as he bludgeoned an 82-ball 101. All told, he smashed nine fours and five sixes — on a number of occasions timing and placing the ball with the precision of a classy, top order batsman.
But with West Indies 286-9 it all came down to his final hit, a muscular heave to long on from a James Neesham delivery — a hit that would have won the match had it gone for six. Instead, it was caught on the fence by Boult as West Indies fell five runs short.
And there was still an over outstanding.
As New Zealand players celebrated the escape, Brathwaite crumpled to his knees and non-striker Oshane Thomas squatted in distress. The pain of defeat was no doubt compounded by the sinking feeling Brathwaite had gambled and lost.
The argument that he could have gone for the single down the ground, kept the strike, and then finished the match in the final over will never die.
“My thinking was to still watch the ball, still react, and if it’s not a ball to get a six off to try to get a single. But if it came in my area I’d try to finish the game with that ball,” Brathwaite told journalists afterwards during the mixed zone.
“I wasn’t sure [it would go for six]. I thought I had enough bat on it, but I was just willing it to go up and up and up, and unfortunately it didn’t. It is what it is — a game of margins — and one or two yards more and we’d have been victorious tonight,” he added.
West Indies skipper Jason Holder defended Brathwaite’s decision-making, asserting that had it not been for the skill and execution shown by the big all-rounder they would not have got that close to the 292-run target.
“We wouldn’t have gone down to the penultimate if it wasn’t for Carlos as well. He’s been playing excellently well up to that point. It’s just one of those things,” Holder said during a post-game press conference.
“I’m sure if New Zealand lost the game there would be a lot of ‘what ifs’ for them, too. Even though they won the game, there’s still probably a few of ‘what ifs’. You can say here in hindsight and say what if, but it’s not the ending for us — just the way the game is played,” Holder added.
Defeat for the Caribbean side, on three points from six games, virtually killed off slim hopes of a semi-final spot. Conversely, New Zealand, unbeaten at the tournament and sitting top with 11 points, are all but assured of a last-four place.