In the immediate aftermath of New Zealand’s incredible ICC Cricket World Cup semi-final against South Africa I found myself wondering: Is this a dream? The newspapers and wall-to-wall media coverage of the morning after the night before are enough to convince me it is not, and that is a relief. But there is a dream-like euphoria mixed with a pinch-me feeling of disbelief throughout the country, given the Black Caps’ success in winning their way through to Melbourne and Sunday’s final has finally smashed that World Cup glass ceiling by banishing all the years of semi-final heartaches.
As a captain who suffered two of those heartaches, in 1999 and 2007, to see a New Zealand side playing with the freedom and quality that Brendon McCullum and his players are producing certainly warms the heart. I was by no means convinced they would get across the line though, as the whole match seemed to be on a knife-edge. When New Zealand were bowling, even dot balls were being cheered and I cannot remember a One-Day International like it before, where every single delivery seemed like a massive event.
It was a titanic arm-wrestle between two outstanding sides and at no stage did I feel, watching on, that either line-up had suddenly assumed a position of strength. But I take my Black Cap off to McCullum for the crucial role he played with the bat in seizing the initiative for his side. I said in the lead-up to the semi-final that I wanted the captain to ensure that, when he was batting and had his foot on the throat of the opposition, he did not give them the encouragement of gifting his wicket away.
You could argue he handed South Africa a lifeline by getting out after blitzing the bowling, but in this instance I prefer to look at things from a slightly different perspective. Following South Africa’s own whirlwind the end of their innings they had the force with them, but McCullum’s innings nullified that feeling, drew the sting of Dale Steyn and also, by getting off to such a fast start, he ensured there was never any major run-rate pressure on the batsmen to come, until that frantic finale. The toss turned out to be crucial, but not in the way I was expecting.
I went on record as saying Eden Park is a bowl-first venue as chasing rather than defending on such a small ground always seems to me to be a better option. And with rain around and my own feeling that Duckworth-Lewis offers a slight advantage to the side batting second because you know your target and can pace yourselves accordingly, that confirmed the idea in my own mind that whoever called correctly would field. So when AB De Villiers opted to bat I was surprised and I was even more surprised when McCullum said he would have done the same thing.
There is no doubt in my mind that the rain that interrupted South Africa’s innings was a massive help to New Zealand and played a key role in the outcome. With 12 overs left and two well-set batsmen at the crease in Faf Du Plessis and AB De Villiers, and with David Miller and JP Duminy to come, I had visions of the possibility of a final score close to 400, and if that had been the case then even New Zealand’s confidence would have tested.
But by limiting the assault to just a further five overs and creating a final target of 298 from 43 overs, I think New Zealand would have taken that task every day of the week if it had been offered to them during that rain break. It was a testing assignment, no doubt, and the fact the side just got home with a ball to spare shows as much. But it was still very much within the realms of possibility and that, in the final analysis, was crucial.
Grant Elliott’s innings showed once again what an inspired selection he has been. It is hard to believe now, given what he has shown over the past three months, that he was on the outer as recently as the series in the United Arab Emirates against Pakistan in December. Now he is one of the first names on the team sheet and the selectors deserve a great pat on the back for resurrecting his international career.
Elliott’s experience and temperament were just what the doctor ordered in the cauldron of those final overs. He appeared unflappable and for him to win it with that six was just the icing on the cake. I mentioned the feeling of euphoria that has followed the outcome of the match but as someone who has played the sport at the highest level, I found it impossible not to have enormous sympathy with South Africa. The raw hurt of the side was just laid bare for the world to see and those images of Morne Morkel close to tears will live with everyone who saw them for a long, long time – perhaps as long as South Africa competes in World Cups until they actually win one.
But something else has stayed with me in the aftermath of the match and that is the way in which the two teams conducted themselves. In 2011 they produced a quarter-final match-up that, looking back, is now remembered as much for the ugly on-field incidents between them as for New Zealand’s come-from-behind win, but there was nothing like that this time. I thought the style in which both sides played, the respect they showed each other and the behaviour of the players, both during and after the match, was superb and something that really gave me a great feeling about the modern game.
The match also showed us all that is good about One-Day International cricket and suddenly the format appears in the best of health after several years when people were suggesting it would wither and die in the face of Twenty20. Now there is just one more hurdle to overcome and whether it is against Australia or India, it will be a tough one to negotiate. Either way, New Zealand will know they will face a crowd in which their own supporters will be in the minority by quite some margin.
I am not sure it matters who McCullum’s men end up playing because either opponent at this stage of the tournament will be top-notch. But the quality the Black Caps have produced has been exceptional time and time again in this tournament and I just hope they can do it once more on Sunday. And if they do then that is one dream I would happily never wake up from.
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