It is easy to throw around superlatives to describe and categorise Martin Guptill’s monumental 237 not out against the West Indies in the ICC Cricket World Cup quarter-final in Wellington. But there is no question in my mind that it is the greatest limited-overs innings in history by a New Zealand player. Statistically, it is obviously the highest, with Guptill breaking his own record, the unbeaten 189 he made against England at Southampton two years ago.
And it also shattered a Black Caps record in World Cups that had stood for 40 years, surpassing Glenn Turner’s 171 not out against East Africa in the New Zealand’s first-ever match in the tournament. But when you add in the circumstances of this innings then this was many, many head and shoulders above anything any Black Caps batsman has ever produced. Those circumstances were simple: win and on you go; lose and out you go. That is pressure and you could magnify that pressure still further with the fact the team had built up a weight of expectation through its performances in the pool stage.
There was a huge crowd, most of them turning up expecting the side to perform, and so to harness that energy and positivity rather than crumple in a heap was a tremendous effort – led by Guptill. His innings really did illustrate the fine line we tread as cricketers given he could have been out for four, in the first over. But, reprieved, he put in the hard work to lay a platform and then cashed in big time at the end.
We saw traces of what he was capable of in that innings in Southampton two years ago, and his innings against Bangladesh last time out was obviously very good indeed. But this was quite simply on another level. His ball-striking was as clean as you are ever likely to see and as for that six that cleared the stadium in the final over of the innings, well, that was truly incredible.
Was it the biggest-ever six? It is impossible to say, of course, and with the modern bats and the striking ability of the current generation then you can become almost blasé about players clearing the ropes. Guptill is not even the first player to put the ball out of the arena in Wellington, something already achieved by current Black Caps batting coach Craig McMillan, but I cannot believe that six or plenty of others in the past – like Mark Waugh’s against Daniel Vettori at the WACA Ground in Perth in November 1997 when I was fielding close-in – have been any bigger.
Guptill’s innings was obviously the stand-out individual contribution but I rate this New Zealand performance as their best of the tournament so far, which is saying something given they came into the match off the back of a perfect record of played six, won six in the pool stage. My reasoning is simple: the knock-out scenario could have changed their approach and made them become more conservative, but they continued to play in the aggressive way that has brought them success and it knocked the West Indies off course.
To score close to 400 against any side is impressive but to do it in a sudden death encounter with continued participation in the tournament at stake was outstanding. And the encouraging thing from a Black Caps point of view is that they have reached the last four of the tournament without a three-figure score from either of Kane Williamson or Ross Taylor, two players who beforehand were expected to be major contributors. I take that as a positive, that there is some room for the side to improve still further.
I also liked what I saw in the field and from the bowlers. True, the ball went around the park as the West Indies, with nothing to lose in the face of such a large total, went for their shots, and that meant a few figures, like those of Tim Southee and Daniel Vettori, looked a little the worse for wear. But at no stage did I see either that pair, or any of the other bowlers, throw in the towel and say ‘it’s not my day’. Every one of them kept their focus and kept looking for wickets and that has been a trait that has stood this side in very good order throughout this tournament.
Brendon McCullum’s use of Trent Boult personified that approach and by keeping the left-armer going for his full quota of ten overs at the top of the innings he once again showed that aggressive style of captaincy that has endeared him to the New Zealand public and the world. The currency for modern captains in the field in this form of the game is wickets; containment will no longer do as we have seen what sides with wickets in hand can do at the back-end of innings thanks to the fielding restrictions. McCullum is king of the castle when it comes to the hunt for wickets and long may that continue.
I think the squad will now be more excited than nervous ahead of the semi-final. They have achieved what I regarded at the start of the tournament as the minimum acceptable pass mark, that of qualifying for the semi-finals, and from now on I think it really will be a case of the shackles coming off. There is a distinct gap between the four remaining sides and the others at this tournament – I think that has become clear – and the New Zealand – South Africa semi-final really is one to look forward to.
For now, though, we can all take a breath and take some time to reflect on a truly amazing innings from Guptill and a great team performance that leaves the Black Caps just two matches from the ultimate glory.