When it was clear that Australia were about to defeat New Zealand in the 2003 rugby union World Cup semi-final, then Australian scrum-half, George Gregan, was caught on camera mouthing the words “four more years” to his All Black counterpart, Byron Kelleher. That semi-final defeat would condemn New Zealand to at least a 20 year wait for their second World Cup trophy. It eventually did come but only in 2011, 24 years after their first title.
Today (Tuesday) the Proteas left Eden Park knowing that they would have to wait another four years to lift their first World Cup trophy. Grant Elliott was capped by South Africa at representative level in the late nineties and scored a magnificent double-hundred for South Africa Under-19s against England Under-19s in a Youth Test at Newlands. He took a leap of faith to continue his career in New Zealand in his early twenties which was validated when he was capped by his adopted country in all three formats of the game.
By his own admission his international career has been chequered but one constant throughout his career has been that of his temperament. It was this quality that earned him selection in the World Cup squad ahead of the more talented but more temperamental, Jimmy Neesham. Credit must go to the New Zealand selectors for making the hard decision and opting for temperament ahead of talent. Today he played the innings that will define his career on the biggest stage possible.
There have been comparisons between this match with the 1999 World Cup semi-final between South Africa and Australia due to the fluctuating nature of the game. The 1999 semi-final is widely regarded as the greatest One-Day International ever played and this fixture definitely pushed it close. I felt South Africa constructed their innings superbly given the loss of the early two wickets and taking the rain into account. Du Plessis and Rossouw showed great composure in rebuilding the innings and providing the necessary platform for De Villiers and Miller. The Proteas would have been content with getting to 281 in 43 overs and would have backed themselves to defend 298 in the same amount of overs.
There has been much debate as to the effect that the rain had on the Proteas innings. I believe that it definitely halted the momentum of the innings which played into the hands of the Black Caps by allowing them to regroup. They would have backed themselves to score at a minimum of ten to the over for the final 12 overs if given the chance and would have believed a score in the region of 340 was well within their grasp. Even though New Zealand had to score at almost seven to the over they would have felt more comfortable having to maintain this rate across 43 overs as opposed to 50 overs. This in turn meant that the start McCullum gave the hosts was much harder to pull back due to the reduced nature of the innings.
In my previous column I said how important it was that the Proteas back deep into their innings so to exploit the New Zealand fifth bowler. The rain robbed them of this opportunity to a certain extent as the fifth bowler only has to complete eight overs. The rain also created a wet outfield which altered the composition of the ball by making it a lot softer when the Proteas bowled. It was clear that the bowlers were battling with this. The elements are part and parcel of the game of cricket and the side which adapts the quickest to them usually comes out on top.
At the 1999 World Cup when Australia were in a precarious position and faced with having to win all their remaining games to progress to the semi-finals, Steve Waugh spoke about the importance of taking every half chance that presented itself. In a tight game with so much at stake neither team is going to put in a flawless performance but the Proteas missed the half chances today that counted and it ultimately cost them. Most tellingly they seemed to deviate from their pre-planned bowling strategy to McCullum by bowling poor lengths which allowed him to dictate the pace of the game.
This in turn allowed for the middle-order to play themselves in as opposed to having to chase the game from the outset. We could further scrutinize the selection of Philander ahead of Abbott, the two missed run-outs and the miscommunication between Berhardien and Duminy but ultimately New Zealand were the better team on the day and have been the better team in the tournament thus far. I experienced three losses in World Cup knockout games and know that the hurt will be present for some time but the team will bounce back.
New Zealand finally won a World Cup semi-final and deservedly so. Seventh time is a charm. I wish them all the best in the final on Sunday.
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