When England and the West Indies strode out onto the pitch in Mumbai on March 16 in the first Group 1 match of the World Twenty20, few will have predicted that the two sides would face off once again with the title on the line.
Group 2 was the strongest of the two sections on paper. Hosts India came into the competition as red-hot favorites for the event having gone on a run of winning 10 of their 11 T20 internationals. If it was not to be India, then there was plenty of strong competition in their group from an Australia side aiming to add the T20 crown to their 50-over World Cup win of last year. Meanwhile, New Zealand had become one of the best exponents of limited-overs cricket and made a superb start to the competition when toppling India.
England and the West Indies, meanwhile, were outsiders, dark horses at best. England brought a young squad to the tournament with little or no experience of Indian conditions or of playing in a World Cup. An opening defeat to West Indies appeared to confirm that, while they possessed some big hitters that could succeed on a helpful batting track, they may struggle or more turning pitches, especially with a bowling lineup that suggested it lacked real depth.
Even in victory, the West Indies had largely confirmed pre-tournament assessments that they were reliant on one man. Their six-wicket win, achieved with 11 balls remaining had been almost entirely a result of the joint-third fastest century in the history of T20 internationals from Chris Gayle. It was clear that arguably the most famous exponent of cricket’s shortest format remained deadly. But would the 36-year-old really be enough to guide the West Indies, which had not played a single T20 international in 2016 in preparation for the World Cup and had been mired in a contract dispute before flying to India, successfully through the tournament?
Many of the doubts remained even after both made their way through to the last four. England needed an incredible run chase of 230 to beat South Africa and then only nervously got past Afghanistan and a poor Sri Lanka side. The West Indies, meanwhile, showed up their inconsistency when losing their final group match to Afghanistan.
Both were underdogs going into their semifinal matches. England were taking on a New Zealand side that had judged the conditions expertly ahead of all four of their group matches to emerge with the only 100 percent record in the group stage. But England ripped up the form book as Eoin Morgan’s young, fearless side emerged with a thumping seven-wicket win with 17 balls still remaining.
Two men in particular had starred: powerful all-rounder Ben Stokes grabbed three wickets, while opener Jason Roy muscled 78 from 44 balls. But contributions with the bat also came from Joe Root and, thrilling at the end, Jos Buttler to demonstrate that England have a number of weapons that can inflict significant damage.
Contrary to expectations, the West Indies proved a similar point in upsetting hosts India in a thrilling second semifinal on Thursday. Captain Darren Sammy said both before and after the match that he viewed it as he and his team against the rest of the world and that they were out to prove the doubters wrong. And they did just that.
Given a total of 193 to chase, the West Indies looked to be dead and buried after losing Gayle in just the second over. Yet with fortune shining on them thanks to Lendl Simmons twice escaping dismissals thanks to no balls, Simmons, Johnson Charles and Andre Russell all scored heavily and rapidly to silence the crowd in Mumbai and win with two deliveries to spare.
The final will now be a meeting of two contrasting sides—a young England team that will hope they are only at the beginning of their journey, and a veteran West Indies side, many of whom will realize they are playing for a final chance to earn the international spotlight. But there is also much in common in how their powerful hitting has seen them emerge as surprise packages through the tournament in a format that rewards hot streaks like no other in cricket.
Added to that, both sides will be already be considered winners by many in this tournament just for making the final. Neither England nor the West Indies, though, will want to throw away the chance for ultimate glory.
Prediction: As the semifinals showed, Twenty20 international cricket is an unpredictable beast. And this final looks to be balanced on a knife edge. While Gayle is the game’s ultimate weapon and has the potential to be decisive, he has now scored just seven runs since his century against England in the first round of fixtures. The West Indies showed against India that they can thrive even without Gayle’s help, but it will be a tough challenge to so again, especially as they are unlikely to be able to count on England being as generous as India with costly errors. It is doubtful, too, whether the West Indies can fire quite as many boundaries on a pitch in Kolkata that has not seen nearly the same flood of runs as the one in Mumbai.
Ultimately, the winner could come down to which team wins the toss, with both likely to be keen to chase. England, though, could just have enough thanks to greater depth and variety in their batting lineup.
Betting odds (via Oddschecker)
West Indies: 10/11
Venue: Eden Gardens, Kolkata
Date: Sunday, April 3
Time: 9:30 a.m. EDT