The first semifinal of the 2015 Cricket World Cup pitted together two proud countries with a history of choking at the penultimate stage. What followed was pure theatre.
Celebrity Fitness: THE SCENE
When New Zealand lost the semifinal of the 1999 World Cup to a Pakistan side that lived up to their mercurial reputation, Dion Nash was so upset he didn’t leave the Old Trafford changing rooms for hours.
Sixteen years later he had left the sheds, but not the scars, behind.
“To be honest with you, we blew that match,” he would tell Cricinfo.
A day later, some two hours down the M6 at Edgbaston, the South Africans were left even more bereft as Allan Donald’s bizarre run out with the scores tied and two balls remaining saw Australia advance to the final.
“It was one of the biggest mistakes you’ll ever see in cricket and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” said Donald in a video blog, a mere 17 years after the incident.
“Maybe someday South Africa will get there.”
There, in the words of two of the most fiercely competitive cricketers who ever lived, do you have the World Cup stories of New Zealand and South Africa encapsulated: semifinal chokers.
Going into the World Cup of 2015 they remained the classic Hollywood hard-luck story without the redemptive ending: they’re the nerds who don’t end up going to the prom; the weedy kids who learn karate but still get their arses kicked by the neighbourhood bully.
Yes, New Zealand has more stains on the semifinal resume – 1975, 79, 92, 99, 07 and 2011 – but South Africa since readmittance in 1992 are more star crossed.
That year a reachable 22 off 13 balls was changed first to 22 off 7 when the rain fell and then, ludicrously, 22 off 1 as the delay stretched on.
The 1999 loss to Australia still haunts them, more than their heavy loss to the same opponents at the same stage in 2007.
So here was a chance for absolution.
Cricket’s two great semifinal losers pitted against each other at Eden Park, a ground more noted for the rugby rivalry between the two countries.
On this day, March 24, cricket would take centre stage.
What followed was eight hours of drama that taunted the nervous, and a showstopping ending that embraced the credulous.
It was, for the 45,000 people in the stadium and the hundreds upon thousands of New Zealanders watching from home, the Greatest Cricket Match Ever Played.
Celebrity Fitness: PROLOGUE
The day dawned early for Genevieve O’Halloran. They tend to when you have a hungry newborn. She fed Fraser, then prepared to make the short walk from her home to Eden Park to pick up the tickets she bought online for herself and her husband.
Wanting to involve everyone in the family in the semifinal experience, she put Fraser in his buggy, called Brendon McCullum into the room, put him on a lead and started walking.
Genevieve O’Halloran: “He’s turning 10 at the end of this year so he’s entering his twilight years. His name is Brendon McCullum [but] we call him Brendon because it’s a bit of a mouthful when you’re calling his name at the park. Even when I call out Brendon we get some funny looks. If the dog’s not paying attention I’ll get quite grumpy and yell out, ‘Brendon!’ People think I’m talking to my husband. It’s definitely the dog.”
Yep, O’Halloran is a big cricket fan. Watching New Zealand play Australia on the telly while in London in 2010, O’Halloran and her husband decided that if McCullum, the human, went on to score a ton that would be the name they would give to the border terrier they were about to purchase. He scored 116 not out.
O’Halloran: “They’re dogs that like to chase balls. They’re not great at bringing them back to be honest so his fielding is not excellent.” *
Cricket tragics like O’Halloran have woken in a state of nervous excitement, with nervous perhaps just winning out.
O’Halloran: “Oh, I was bricking it. I was super nervous and just got more and more nervous as the day went on and as the game progressed as well. Even talking about it now makes me feel a bit twitchy.”
To cope, many find solace in pre-loading. Andrew James, who will become a YouTube viral sensation before the day is over, is one. He was up from Dunedin and had organised “a small gathering” for some nerve settlers.
James: “There was about 100 of us there. A mate lived just over the road from the park. He had a small backyard that was packed out. You couldn’t see a lot of grass before the game. Just a lot of bodies, a lot of excitement. A few of us took it upon ourselves to dress up. We had the beige one-piece, so that was good stuff. Spirits were high. It was awesome to actually be going to a World Cup semifinal in your own backyard.”
If the fans were nervous, the players were less so. Having been embraced by the country in ways not seen since the heady days of 1992, they knew they would have the crowd on their side. And, as silly as it sounded given their semifinal futility, perhaps even history.
Brendon McCullum: “I was pretty relaxed actually. I thought we had the best horse in the race so we just needed things to go our way. I just wanted the guys to remain composed and just enjoy the experience.”
Kyle Mills: “They’re a good side, but South Africa has always been a team where you kind of felt if you played in a series – a three-game series or a five-game series – they’re in their comfort zone. Get them into a knockout tournament and [it’s a different story]. They’re a really emotional people, the South Africans. They’ve got this pride thing back home, which is cool, but they put so much pressure on themselves. Every World Cup they hype themselves up so I always feel like we had a chance.”
South Africa, for their part, got the team they wanted, according to reporter Firdose Moonda.
Moonda: “The way they dealt with Sri Lanka in the quarter-final there was a feeling of, ‘This is it, finally we’re going to win a World Cup.’ It was considered quite lucky in a way that they ended up playing New Zealand because they wouldn’t have wanted to play Australia or India.
“There was a sense that something special was going to happen and a lot of that rested on AB [de Villiers] and the fact he was playing so well… there was a sense of nothing can go wrong here.”
The four best teams were in the semifinals, no doubt, a fact confirmed by the ease in which they progressed from the quarter-finals. Australia made short work of Pakistan, India thumped Bangladesh, South Africa embarrassed Sri Lanka and New Zealand required just two words to beat the West Indies – Martin Guptill. He’d followed a match-winning century against Bangladesh in pool play with a sublime 237 not out in the knockout match against the Windies in Wellington.
Guptill: “It was a funny sort of time for me personally. Leading up to the World Cup I’d had nine innings – we’d played Sri Lanka seven times and Pakistan twice – and in that I had two 50s and not a lot else. I was hitting the ball so well in the nets. It felt like I was in really good form but it just wasn’t translating well out in the middle.”
From enigmatic underachiever to world beater in a couple of seminal innings, Guptill shaped as the key wicket for South Africa but that was going to have to wait after de Villiers won the toss and, perhaps surprisingly, chose to bat.
We say surprisingly because although the World Cup had been played on this side of the Tasman in glorious sunshine, this day was grey and rain was forecast. Clouds were gathering on the Waitakere Ranges and that usually meant that Auckland’s inner west, including Mt Eden and its surrounds, would be lucky to avoid a dousing.
At Wellington airport, where Beige Brigade co-founder Paul Ford was waiting for his flight, there was even chatter that the game would need a reserve day.
Ford: “Weather was a real talking point coming up. There was talk about the game not even going ahead. There was a lot of Googling of ‘Weather in Auckland’.”
So when the coin came down in de Villiers’ favour, the New Zealand skipper was mentally putting his pads on.
McCullum: “I was surprised. We were worried about a Duckworth-Lewis so obviously you want to be chasing, ideally. If there’s a bit of rain, you have a bit more control over [the match].”
The advantage of bowling or batting first in rain-affected games had been somewhat smoothed out with the Duckworth-Lewis calculator but the general consensus was that when rain was threatening an early interruption, as it was on this day, batting second would be advantageous as you would know before you started what your permutations were throughout the innings.
De Villiers, however, chose to ignore the prognostications that had rain disrupting the first half of the match.
Perhaps his mind had been clouded by another issue that had been percolating in the background; an issue that was very South African in nature.
Right-arm quick Kyle Abbott had been the Proteas’ form bowler but a fit-again Vernon Philander warranted consideration for a place in the attack alongside Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Imran Tahir and allrounders JP Duminy and de Villiers.
Covering all this intrigue was Moonda, although pre-match it’s fair to say information was sketchy.
Moonda: “What happened was Philander was injured and struggling with hamstring problems. He has struggled with fitness problems throughout his career. He missed a couple of games and Abbott had done really well and was South Africa’s leading bowler at the time. Going on form, Abbott should have been picked. It really seemed reputation wouldn’t matter so much given that it was a semifinal.
“Then some curious things happened. I remember a couple of unprompted suggestions from the coaching staff that Philander would be considered. The suggestion coming out from the camp was that they were considering Vernon because he’s got a great record in New Zealand and on slightly slower wickets he knows how to mix it up. We want some consistency, he can offer 10 overs bowled reliably – that kind of thing. It was really strange that those kinds of comments were being made.
“A couple of days before the game, those of us who look at the numbers in terms of players of colour had realised South Africa were falling behind the ‘transformation’ recommendation.”
New Zealand had their own selection controversy to deal with.
Coach Mike Hesson and McCullum had tried to keep their strongest eleven together for the duration of the tournament and that had meant little to no opportunities for squad members Nathan McCullum, Mitchell McClenaghan, Tom Latham and Kyle Mills.
It was just the latest chapter in a history of World Cup woe for the veteran Mills, who knew this was to be his last international assignment. He’d gone to South Africa in 2003 and had played one game, had withdrawn with injury on the eve of the 2007 tournament and injury had again intervened in 2011, seeing him return early having played just three matches.
He’d yet to suit up in 2015 but had embraced his role as off-field mentor to the young bowling attack.
Mills: “If you look at the make-up and the balance of the bowling group I was more competing with Tim Southee – swing it away, try to bowl line and length. Trent Boult, left-arm, bringing it in. Then Adam Milne the quick fella. They complemented each other. I had to take it on the chin. I was very conscious of not being a grumpy 12th man and because it was going to be my last six weeks in the team anyway, I might as well just go out and enjoy it. I really embraced that mentality of trying to be a leader.”
That attack was down one man, however, after Adam Milne was invalided out of the tournament following the quarter-final win and Matt Henry was brought into the squad.
Mills: “I hadn’t played for I guess five or six weeks but I did think, ‘I’m all go here.’ I really upped the ante training wise because I thought, ‘I’m a chance here’. But Baz [McCullum] and Hess [Hesson] decided to go with Henners, who’d been playing domestic cricket.”
Still, it must have hurt?
Mills: “The day before Baz would have come up to me and said, ‘We’re going to go with Henners’. I’m really good friends with Baz and we have those honest conversations. I was like, ‘Mate, come on’, but I just had to cop it. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed. I was. World Cup semifinal. But I completely understood the situation where I hadn’t played a competitive game of cricket in forever really.”
McCullum: “We wanted Kyle Mills desperately as part of our World Cup team because if someone was to go down on the morning of the game then Kyle, with all of his experience, would be able to come in and do a fantastic job. And also, around the group, his leadership would be so strong. Whereas if we had time to bring a player in, rather than on the morning of the game, then Matt Henry would be that option and we needed him playing cricket because he didn’t have that much experience.
“I remember sitting down with Mike [Hesson] and it wasn’t a hard conversation to have; the hard part was going to be telling Kyle and hoping he understood the rationale. To a degree, he did. I’m sure he respected the process and the fact that me, one of his great mates, was telling him as well. It was hard, but guys respect the fact you look them in the eye and be honest with them.”
Mills would never play for New Zealand again, but he would watch some cricket along with the rest of us.
Celebrity Fitness: ACT ONE
Under increasingly leaden skies the regal Hashim Amla and deceptively cherubic Quinton de Kock walked out to the middle to face the new-ball attack of Southee and Boult.
Few had any idea of what a good total would be because although the straight boundaries were kids-cricket short, bowlers tended to draw back their length to make them less accessible.
Add to that, New Zealand and Australia had played out a 151 plays 152-9 thriller in pool play at the ground, and Pakistan had beaten South Africa also in a low-scoring match.
The only game at Eden Park that gave any weight to the theory it was a place where runs flowed like West Coast floodwaters was the Pool B match where India chased down Zimbabwe’s 287 with eight balls to spare. It was for that reason that groundsman Blair Christiansen made a decision not to swap out that pitch for a new one prepared specifically for the semifinal.
Christiansen: “I was thinking, ‘It’s a World Cup semifinal and I’ve got to have a new wicket’, but the Zimbabwe wicket had played really well. All it did was [add] another element of risk by bringing in a new pitch. We were halfway through prepping it out in the nursery but not knowing exactly how it would play [so] I decided to go with the used one knowing it was good and just re-prepare it. You couldn’t even tell it had been used. It was the right decision in the end but it wasn’t my original decision.”
The early going suggested South Africa might struggle to mount 300, a total seen by many as par. The normally fluent Amla and de Kock struggled for a foothold and were dismissed cheaply, the latter when he skied a ball to third man. The noise from the crowd roiled into a crescendo as the bucket-handed Southee settled under it.
Southee: “Because it’s such a short boundary, it hits you before you know it. You see the ball and your mind slips into catch-it mode and then you hear the crowd roar after you take the wicket, which is a pretty cool thing to experience.”
The early wickets and pressure exerted by Southee and Trent Boult, who became New Zealand’s highest wicket-taker at a World Cup with de Kock’s wicket, force Nos 3 and 4, Faf du Plessis and Rilee Rossouw, into a repair job.
Progress is not exactly slow, but it is deliberate.
Although he would never admit it, du Plessis would not have been human if he hadn’t wanted to play especially well. In the lead-up to the game, an incident from the 2011 World Cup quarter-final had been revisited.
There was one New Zealander wishing it hadn’t – Mills. In that match at Dhaka, won by New Zealand, Mills had run onto the field as 12th man, giving du Plessis a gobful after he was at fault in the run out of de Villiers. Even the Black Caps’ biggest apologists accepted it didn’t look good.
Mills: “I’ve tried to erase it from my memory to be fair. How do I explain all this? The World Cups were never a success for me personally.”
The right-armer had just learned that he would be flying from Dhaka back to New Zealand the following day after it was determined a torn quadricep would not heal in time for the semifinal.
Mills: “So I wasn’t in great space, but that’s no excuse. Faf du Plessis had just come on the scene around that World Cup time as an international player. [He] came out quite strong in the press. I can’t remember the exact words but it was he was the man in the middle for South Africa and he’s going to win them the World Cup. All of us were like, ‘What? Hang on there, who’s this fella?’ A few of us went out to dinner and we decided we’d try to put pressure on him. He’s a young guy, thinks he’s carrying the can for the top order, so let’s put some pressure on him.
“I wasn’t playing, not in a great mental space and wasn’t handling going home again from another World Cup. I was wearing a netball bib, effectively, and there was a run out. It was du Plessis’ fault. I said something like, ‘You something idiot, you’ve just run out the best player’. Trying to put pressure on him. A few of the other lads chimed in.
“I should never have said anything because I’m wearing a netball bib. I shouldn’t have been engaged. I wasn’t playing. Bit of an average mentality… but that was our culture at the time, to try to play like an Australian team, I guess. And the rest is history. I got fined and looked like an idiot. I look back on it now and am highly embarrassed about it.”
Later that night, at the Dhaka hotel both teams were using, Mills sought out du Plessis.
Mills: “I said, ‘Sorry buddy, I should never have said anything, it wasn’t my place.’ He was just, ‘No worries, it’s OK, it’s all good.’ He was so good about it so that just made me feel worse. So yeah, I look back on it now and am just horrendously embarrassed and wish it never took place.”
Four years later, du Plessis has a chance to prove to Mills, once again sidelined in a netball bib, that he’s grown into the World Cup matchwinner he said he’d be.
When Rossouw is brilliantly caught one-handed by Guptill, he is joined by his captain AB de Villiers. Their careers have been seemingly intertwined since they attended famous Pretoria nursery Afrikaans Boys’ High School. If you were looking for an easy contrast, de Villiers, 17 months older, is the preternaturally gifted strokeplayer, while du Plessis is the man who fights and scraps for everything.
This partnership follows those lines: du Plessis is far from fluent while de Villiers moves smoothly through the gears.
Both are given lives by Kane Williamson in contrasting ways. Williamson, in his only over, has du Plessis plumb lbw for 35 but the appeal is unconvincing and a review is not sought.
On 38, de Villiers offers Williamson a difficult catch but it finds grass.
The next three balls go six, four, four. Uh-oh.
McCullum is forced to bring back his big boys, Southee and Boult, much earlier than he would like. They bowl one over each, then… rain!
McCullum: “I was pretty thankful actually because they were just starting to unleash. It was almost written in the stars that this was what was going to happen.”
If not the stars then definitely the clouds. De Villiers’ gamble at the toss does not come off. It begins teeming down.
Moonda: “Rain seemed like something that was always going to happen because the rain always comes into it with South Africa in big tournaments.”
Grant Elliott: “That was massive. The way Baz played the World Cup, his strategy was to bowl out Southee and Boult, so a lot of the time we got to the 40th over and we’d look around the field and go, ‘I wonder who’s going to bowl in the death here?’ This was a moment when you’re at Eden Park, it’s quite a small field and you’ve got AB, Mr 360, he’s batting well, and [David] Miller, with I think six overs to go [instead of 13]. Those extra overs, you can get another 70, so the rain played its part.”
Riaan Muller works as logistics manager for the Black Caps. Four years ago he performed the same role for South Africa.
Muller: “Once the rain started I think that affected the players and that’s where the nerves started to kick in and that sort of changed the whole scenario and we were thinking it’s a 50/50 situation, anyone can win the match at this stage.”
It is obvious the delay is going to be a long one. That proves not just fortuitous for McCullum and 10 anxious teammates, but also for some in the crowd.
O’Halloran: “I went back home during the weather disturbance, sorted the baby out and went back.”
James: “To be honest, the big rain delay, it could have gone one way or the other with the crowd. We started throwing around the tennis ball and random people started popping up in the crowd and were waving their arms wanting to play a bit of catch. A very simple game but it actually got people into it, one community. I think it went for about half an hour, just throwing around a tennis ball – just one ball, never lost it.”
During the break AJ also had his face painted black and white and made a trip back to the pre-party, which was still in full swing.
James: “There was a bit of lubricating going on over there. An unforgettable experience.”
Paul Ford meanwhile, had a small dilemma. It was a World Cup semifinal, sure, and as part of the seven-man Alternative Commentary team it was expected he’d be calling a potentially historic day. It was, however, also an auspicious date on the personal calendar.
Ford: “On March 24, 2012, Tracey and I got married at Tarureka in the Wairarapa, in Featherston. I remember the date, which is good for a guy, let’s be honest. We postponed our honeymoon because there was a test match on. We went to that straight after our wedding. We met at the Basin, so it’s fair to say cricket and love have intertwined for me for many years. I’m lucky to have found a beautiful lady to marry, a wonderful woman, and she likes cricket so it’s hard to beat that.”
So Ford did the only thing a man who had to look his mates in the eye could do in the circumstances: he left Tracey at the ground and went and joined his colleagues at their cave in downtown Auckland.
Ford: “Thanks to the incident of Leigh Hart being on the ground talking to the players in Napier, we had been, I don’t know what the word would be, censured? We were allowed to keep doing the commentary but we certainly weren’t allowed at the ground. The boys were in a studio set up specifically to commentate cricket with food arriving, a few beers, a big screen. It was pretty good but hey, having experienced both places, there’s an electricity in the Alternative Commentary Collective at the best of times but it was extraordinary at Eden Park. I loved being able to be at both places during that day.”
Ford might be wrestling with his work/love-life balance, but for Christiansen it is all work. It doesn’t matter how heavy the rain, in a World Cup semifinal there are certain expectations, principal among them that there will be as much cricket as possible.
With humidity creeping above 90 per cent in the morning, this was a day where moisture was a constant threat.
Christiansen: “That day was a pretty stressful day. There’d been showers in the lead-in to it and we weren’t particularly confident around getting a full game. We’d sort of got an inclination about whether certain teams, how keen they were to come back on and how Duckworth-Lewis might have affected them. Umpires now are under pretty strict instructions to get play under way as soon as they deem it to be even close to being safe.
“We watched most of that game from down on the sideline. At night you can’t see the weather coming in. You can look at radars and things like that but you don’t know how close it is compared to the day. You’re always on edge, looking over your shoulder. The New Zealand innings we pretty much just watched from the boundary.”
Given the amount of rain, it is close to amazing that just six minutes shy of two hours is lost, 14 overs total, that sees the match reduced to 43 overs per side.
The second ball after the resumption Corey Anderson is called for a leg-side wide, but McCullum thinks he has heard something.
McCullum: “Bear in mind my stats on referrals were shocking. We probably identified we needed wickets. I probably looked more to Faf and saw his guilt rather than anything else.”
Whatever it was, he was right.
Du Plessis is dismissed much to New Zealand’s relief, but they should have been careful what they wished for. In 19 deliveries, David Miller comes and goes for a pyroclastic 49, reducing the destructive de Villiers to a mere onlooker.
McCullum: “The ball was a bit greasy. That was the biggest concern. We weren’t able to implement our skills as well as we could because the ball was greasy and the outfield was greasy. No swing, the ball was sliding on, the fielders weren’t able to do a whole lot. The bowlers running in against a guy like David Miller – it was always going to be hard with short boundaries. It’s almost a matter of trying to limit the damage.”
The damage was significant – 281-5, which when put through the Duckworth-Lewis machine, spits out a target of 298 off 43 overs.
McCullum: “Yeah it’s a lot, but we’ve got the tools to be able to nail it.”
Mike Hesson: “299 off 43 overs was always going to be a big ask but in the end the shortened game helped us because it just allowed us to go out there and play one way. We couldn’t overthink it, we needed Brendon and Guppy [Guptill] to go out and play aggressively at the top to give ourselves a chance.”
The captain himself is the bluntest tool they have at their disposal. He doesn’t eat during the break, instead looking for a quiet place to “smoke durries” and slowly gear up.
McCullum: “I hate it when people start barking orders like, ‘We’ve bowled well, you know what you’ve got to do…’ We’ve done all that shit before. Just let the guys go about their work in their own manner. We knew how to play at Eden Park, we knew that the wicket was going to be good, the guys knew what the boundary sizes were, they knew who they were going to target. We just needed a little bit of luck to get away to a good start.”
Celebrity Fitness: ACT TWO:
As Guptill and McCullum strode to the crease South Africa were eyeing two in-form players, though the former had gone some way to playing himself out of form during the two-day break between quarter- and semifinal.
Guptill: “I had an awful net. I was getting bowled, nicking off, everything. I just forgot how to bat. I wasn’t trying to slog or anything. I was just trying to watch the ball and bat but I couldn’t hit it.”
As always, he took guard for the first ball, to be bowled by South African champion Dale Steyn.
Guptill: “It’s because I got told to. It didn’t bother me. Baz and I opened in my first game, then he went down the order and when he came back to open just before the World Cup he said, ‘You happy to take first ball?’ I was like, ‘I don’t care, you’ve got to face one at some point.'”
He squirts the first ball for a single backward of point and then sits back to watch the McCullum Show. There was no plan, Guptill says, for McCullum to be the aggressor and Guptill the nudger.
Guptill: “I think he just took it upon himself. It didn’t matter if he was hitting it well or not. He was still running down the wicket every other ball and having a go. I had the best seat in the house when he was going well. He’s such a clean striker of the ball. It was one of those times it just came off for us. He just did it with such ease as well that it gave the rest of the guys a bit of leeway, I guess, in terms of when they came in they could take a few overs to get themselves going.
“Baz absolutely dealt to Dale Steyn like I’ve never seen before. The only other person I’ve seen do that is AB de Villiers at the IPL. It was unbelievable being at the other end watching this go on. He was hitting it to all parts.”
McCullum: “Dale swinging the ball away from me is quite a good match-up, especially at Eden Park because you know he can’t get too full because of the short boundaries so he’s normally going to be a little wide of off stump. You have a bit of an idea of where the ball’s going to be. Vernon Philander, you know he’s going to want to hit the same spot every time. If I was prepared to use my feet to him I could knock his length off a little, so that becomes a decent match-up too.”
Steyn is known as a top bloke off the field. On the field, he’s a different animal – a loud, talkative one.
Guptill: “Yeah, yeah. He certainly is. He’ll let you know when he’s on top.”
On this occasion he was very definitely not on top, a fact verified when McCullum hit his best shot of the tournament – a charging straight six into the second tier of the South Stand.
McCullum: “That one felt good. He had to come fuller. That was the only reason I ran. He’d gone back of a length and I’d hit him over cover. He’d tried to go back of a length and straighter and I’d got those away.”
McCullum’s pyrotechnics had the twin effect of quieting Steyn and getting the crowd into a frenzy. South Africa needed a change of pace, literally. In just the sixth over leggie Imran Tahir comes on to bowl.
In the blink of six dot balls to Guptill, the game changes.
McCullum, facing Morne Morkel to start the next over, feels the need to press harder to make up for the “lost” over.
McCullum: “That’s probably true. I’d identified Tahir as a risk so I probably went extra hard against Morne and made a poor decision rather than just being content that we were under way here, we’ve got them on the run so be a bit clearer in your decision-making. I wouldn’t say it was Gup’s fault: I looked at it and said, ‘There’s a legspinner on, he’s a danger to me’. It heightened how I played at the other end rather than being a bit clearer of thought.
“I think I ran at [Morne]. In hindsight, you don’t run at those [tall] guys; you’re better off sitting deep in the crease to use their bounce.”
McCullum spooned Morkel to mid on. He might have been disappointed in his decision-making on the one hand, but on the other he was pleased he had given his team the start they desperately needed.
McCullum: “If they had opened with a spinner that would have been interesting because that would have thrown my game plan – because my game plan is not to go hard at a spinner early because I’m not as strong against them – and that could have thrown us around a little bit.”
New Zealand falter.
Williamson, enduring a tough semifinal, chops on cheaply and Guptill is joined by Ross Taylor. The pair are close friends; on tour they’re umbilical. On this night, you wouldn’t think so.
Guptill: “I got a couple away. I was on 30-odd and Ross has hit one straight to point and called me through. We had about three run outs between us in that World Cup. We’re usually pretty good together between the wickets. I’m putting them all down as his fault too.”
He can laugh about it now. Not then.
Guptill: “I was certainly a bit grumpy.”
Grant Elliott makes his way to the middle of Eden Park via Johannesburg. His South African heritage – and accent – is such, that on the morning of the game Southee and Dan Vettori ask him which anthem he intends singing later that day.
Elliott: “I think a lot of people say the reason I came here was, you know, the quota system, positive discrimination or whatever you want to call it. That wasn’t actually the case. I actually had a contract dispute back in 2003 with Gauteng Cricket. I took legal action and all I wanted was for them to admit guilt, which they did, but that meant I … couldn’t play for anybody else.
“I met a guy, Darron Reekers, who was playing for a club in Holland called Quick. I chatted with Ken Rutherford and between the two of them came up with a plan. I decided I was going to head over to Christchurch and play club cricket for Marist. I did that, loved it and was quite keen to return and make New Zealand my home.”
If Guptill’s run out wasn’t bad enough – and the look of anguish on Taylor’s face indicated it was bad enough – worse was to follow when New Zealand’s greatest one-day batsman was strangled down the leg side to the part-time offspin of JP Duminy.
Hope was fading. Even the most positive captain in New Zealand’s history wondered (briefly) if his team’s chances were walking off Eden Park with Taylor.
McCullum: “Yeah, of course, but we’d just done so many good things that year. We’d found ways to win from anywhere. That was almost the mantra of the team. There was no panic. Have faith that we’d be able to find a way through it. Yeah, we were behind the game but I felt South Africa … I said all along just get close and we’ll be calmer under pressure.”
Mills: “We were never ahead in that game until the last ball in my opinion. We were always chasing that game in the second innings. Yeah, we got off to a good start but it’s a long time [and] then those dismissals happened and you kind of think, ‘Geez…'”
McCullum: “I think the shadow of every World Cup looms with South Africa, to be honest. Without being harsh to them. I’m fascinated by their mindset because to me they’re such a talented group of players. To me they’re so regimented. When the pressure’s on, provided we’re able to be a little bit creative and ballsy, we’d be able to find a way through. I felt if we got close we’d win because of that mentality. They’ve got so much baggage and you could hear it in the way they talked all the way through the tournament that they almost wanted it too much. We wanted it – don’t get me wrong we wanted it – but we were just content that we were going to play our way and the pressure comes and goes.”
The constant noise from the crowd had dissipated. They needed a lift. It came from an unlikely source – a man dressed in a beige skin-suit, accessorised with an $6 pair of pink Kmart shoes and a single junior wicketkeeping pad.
A couple of days later James would wake to find himself a YouTube sensation after an Australian uploaded the footage under the title: “Best dancer in New Zealand.”
James: “That copped a bit of heat from mates and the public. I’m certainly not one of the best dancers in New Zealand, I probably just had the most energy at that point.”
In a remarkably unscientific example of energy transference, James’ antics reinvigorate the crowd and in turn revitalise New Zealand, who are banking on the ultra-experienced Elliott and outrageously talented (yet, arguably, underachieving) Corey Anderson to redress the balance of power.
They do so with the help from the normally brilliant at fielding South Africans, who badly botch a run out opportunity. On 204, Anderson is sent back by Elliott and de Villiers only needs to gather the ball to have him out by half the pitch.
The throw from Rossouw is poor and so is the pick up.
It’s starts a chain reaction of muffs and misfields.
The whole South Africa semifinal hoodoo issue starts to bubble away.
Muller: “It definitely played a big, big role towards the end of the match. Everybody started thinking we were going to go down again. We were not going to be able to go to the final. The choker chain has just come out again, as we call it.”
The Proteas look so frazzled it comes as a minor surprise when du Plessis hangs on to an Anderson skier to make it 252-5.
Enter Luke Ronchi.
Exit Luke Ronchi.
Guptill: “Roncs went in and he got out and came back in, but he said to Hess, ‘We’ve got this, Grant’s on a different planet right now.'”
This might be true but the message never reaches the Eastern Stand, where O’Halloran and husband are sitting in fever-pitched silence. It is too much for O’Halloran who shamelessly uses her child as a get-out-of-Eden Park-free card.
O’Halloran: “You know that feeling you get when you’re watching a horror movie and you know something really bad is going to happen, so you start sliding down in your seat? I was like that.
“I said to my husband, because it was running a bit over time as well, ‘I’m going to have to go home because the babysitter is only booked ’til 10 and it’s three minutes past 10 so I better go.’ He was like, ‘What are you doing? She doesn’t care.’ I convinced myself I had to go home to relieve the babysitter. I left the game early.”
While Elliott is in the “zone”, he still needs a little luck.
First he skies one in the gap between infield and outfield, not easy on the postage stamp-sized Eden Park, but he strikes his next top edge a little better and it carries to sub fielder Farhaan Behardien who drops it under duress from Duminy.
As she walks the 10 minutes home, O’Halloran tries to read the crowd noise.
Inside the stadium, Elliott projects an impossible calm.
Elliott: “The runs we needed, you had to take risks, maybe one or two risks an over by that stage. You’ve got world-class bowlers bowling to you so you just play your game.”
It boils down to this equation: 12 needed off the final over; Steyn at the top of his run-up; the two oldest players in the New Zealand XI at the crease.
Elliott: “Dan [Vettori] and I are quite thoughtful. We do think through things and there is strategy. I know that in a moment like that the bowler is under as much pressure as you are. You take your time, have a chat, talk about your strategy. How many times have we seen it where you go to the batting pair, ‘Just talk to him. Why are you not having a chat to discuss what you need to do?’ They don’t have a chat and it’s an absolute balls up.”
Whatever they chatted about, it didn’t really work. Vettori misses the first ball, but they run a bye.
Elliott: “I hit a full toss the first ball [I faced]. I cross-batted it to mid-off and thought, ‘That was the ball. That was the ball to get us to [seven off four], that was the game’. You can see my body language, I slump a little bit.”
After taking the single, Elliott watches from the non-striker’s end as Steyn delivers a pitch-perfect wide yorker. He then witnesses a quintessential Vettori moment.
Elliott: “You talk about moments in the game and yes, I hit the winning shot but Dan’s shot was just as important. To squeeze that, a Vettori classic, down to third man.”
His former schoolmate could see it coming a mile off.
Ford: “If they pitch it up he’s going to back away and squirt it behind point just like he’s done for the previous 293 one-dayers he’s played; every match he’s played since he was seven years old. That’s his go-to shot. We’ve been at cricket matches where we’ve been saying to the opposition captain, ‘You probably need a guy behind point.’ They don’t do it and he squeezes one through there.”
Mills: “Vettori just finds a way. It’s not pretty but he finds ways to turn the strike over to get runs. He got us into a position where Grant could finish it off. It’s incredible. That’s his go-to zone, behind point and to third man.”
Elliott: “The funny thing about that is Morne Morkel told me, ‘I think I won you guys the World Cup semi.’ I was like, ‘How’s that so?’ he said, ‘I moved five metres to the right before the ball Dan squeezed because I thought he would hit it fine.’ It just missed him on his left so had he stayed in that position it wouldn’t have been four and it would have been a tough ask from there.”
“The shot he hit for four summed up Vettori’s batting. He was a gun batter but it was bloody ugly. He found a way. That pretty much summed up him: he found a way to give us a chance in that game.”
The very fact he was there meant a lot to the coach and captain, who wanted Vettori’s poise and nous, even if it meant letting him prepare for the tournament in his own way to mitigate against his creaking body.
McCullum: “Dan coming back was a great story. He could have sailed off into the sunset. He didn’t have to prove anything but he saw what was happening with that group of people and he wanted to be part of it. He trusted Hess and I [to] allow him to have his time to prep his own path back. He knew how much he meant to us and he was massive in allowing us to get to that point.”
At this juncture, however, Vettori was spent and knew it. He missed the fourth ball. They ran anyway. Elliott could have been run out at the striker’s end. Incredibly, Vettori could also have been run out at the non-striker’s end.
De Kock missed, then so did Steyn from point-blank range.
Elliott: “Dan went, ‘Right, it’s up to you.’ That was with two balls to go. We were going to run to the keeper irrespective of whether he missed it but he was going to give me those two balls. When he gave that message I just remember feeling a little bit more pressure on me.”
Five needed off two. Actually, four needed, as a tie will get them through.
Elliott, who is renowned for “drifting off” in the field claims he was fully aware of this fact.
Nevertheless, the coaching staff are taking no chances.
Hesson: “We’ve all got walkie-talkies so we’re in communication with everybody. We knew we needed four to win, a tie was good enough for us because we were top qualifier.”
One person not in the dugout with his teammates was the skipper.
McCullum: “The first thing that always happens when pressure goes on is the cameras pan to the dugout and people start to look at the emotion of the captain. Whether it’s right or wrong, people make assumptions over whether you’re nervous or you’re calm. I just think it’s bullshit so I’d always be away from the dugout downstairs.”
Time pauses as de Villiers and Steyn discuss what to bowl. Elliott has seen mid-on and mid-off come up inside the circle.
Hesson: “We were kind of thinking if Steyn was to bowl back of a length to take the short boundary out of play, we knew Grant was good at ramping, so we were trying to predict how he might go about it. We didn’t expect him to hit one right out of the screws over wide long-on, that’s for sure.”
Elliott: “They thought that was where I was weak as a player.”
Mills: “Couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe he bowled length that ball. I guess sometimes there’s a mentality at Eden Park – short boundaries straight, bigger boundaries square but they’re still not like MCG boundaries – that you’ve got to bowl length and get hit to the square boundaries. I was always a fan at Eden Park of bowling yorker, but wide yorker. I thought he was going wide yorker. Dale Steyn, one of the best bowlers in the world, bowls fast, just needs to hit a yorker and job done.”
He bowls back of a length, just where Elliott, having seen the field set by de Villiers, assumes it will be.
Elliott: “The fact that mid-on is up and mid-off was up for that delivery suggests it is going to be back of a length or short, unless he’s throwing in a dummy which would be a gutsy move at that stage of the game. Wherever the ball was going I was going to have a proper dip because we had two chances to get the boundary. If I get my poles knocked out then Timmy can come in [laughs] and he can do it.”
Southee: “I was shitting myself. It was five off two. The first thing I found out was that a tie would get us through. My mindset changed from trying to hit Dale Steyn out of the park to probably a safer bet was trying to nick a four or trying to a way to squeeze a boundary out somewhere, so that made sitting there a little bit easier. Knowing that a four would [get] us through made the nerves settle a little bit.”
As Steyn begins his approach, Elliott … breathes.
Elliott: “Constantly as an athlete you have these voices in your head saying, ‘You’re not good enough, you can’t do it.’ As he starts his run-up that’s where you start your breathing. If you’re not calm in that moment, you’re anxious and your muscles will tighten and you won’t have a chance. That ability to calm yourself and play it just like it’s any other delivery is the key.”
McCullum: “If Grant hadn’t gone to the subcontinent he would have played a lot more international cricket than what he did. Playing in that environment didn’t really suit him. He’s the kind of guy that the bigger the occasion, in front of all the mates, he’s as good a player as there is. Playing over there in the middle of winter, Bangladesh, facing left-arm spin constantly on low, skiddy wickets, no one he knows around, isolated away from everyone, he’s going to struggle. That probably sums him up as a person too. He needs that stuff around him. Hess and I always said, big games, Grant will always step up. He scored runs in Aussie, twice in a row. He was just starved of those big opportunities.”
When Steyn leaps into his delivery stride, Elliott moves back and across, deep inside his crease. The ball is where he expects it to be. He swings…
“I hit it a bit high on the bat and I thought, ‘I’m not too sure…’ At Eden Park you’ve got the LED lights and you can’t really see, they blind you a bit. I looked down, then looked up and saw the ball sort of appear above them and I knew I’d got it. There was huge relief to be honest. Ecstasy mixed with relief. There’s a number of emotions that pour through you.
“I wasn’t a massive hitter but towards the end of my career I managed to hit some biggish ones. At Eden Park you always back yourself to hit a few sixes in your innings. To come through that pressure and do it is really nice. I’m not sure if I’d have to re-emigrate if I didn’t. I didn’t want to be that guy who couldn’t win the semifinal.”
The roar is phenomenal. Probably the loudest heard at a sporting event in New Zealand; unquestionably louder than the final whistle of the 2011 Rugby World Cup final, which was a quiet exhalation by comparison.
It could be heard clearly from the front room of a Kingsland house not more than 10 minutes walk from the park.
O’Halloran: “The babysitter leaves and I turn on the coverage but it’s about 10 seconds delayed. I can hear what’s happening at the park but it doesn’t translate to what I’m seeing on the screen. I hear a massive cheer which could have also been a massive, ‘Oh shit, what’s just happened?’ About 10 seconds later I discovered we won.
“Part of me definitely had a bit of FOMO but my nerves were so shredded… I started texting everyone. I texted my husband. He was like, ‘You complete weakling,’ [but] I was happy to be home celebrating by myself. That’s weird, I know.”
Celebrity Fitness: ACT THREE
By the time O’Halloran has processed the result, Elliott has done something else that will go down in folklore. It would be the tournament’s Kodak moment.
Elliott: “They’ve obviously lost. They’re down. There’s a couple of guys lying on the ground. They’re obviously devastated and I saw Dale next to me so I extended the hand to him. Initially he didn’t take it, then he got up and was alright you know.”
Steyn**: “I was kind of lying on my back, trying to take stock of things that happened. You train for four years for that tournament and it disappeared like this … in a flash. It was comforting to see a man stand and give out his hand. And it also takes a man to stretch out his hand and accept the humble gesture. I liked it, it was great. I felt I had spent enough time on the ground and it was time to get up [laughs]. Grant was the perfect man to pick me up. It was a perfect moment.”
McCullum: “The moment where he hit the six was amazing, but to me the moment where he reached down and grabbed Dale Steyn was better. I thought we hit as high as we could as a group when he did that.”
Elliott: “Showing empathy to the opposition because they play the game hard. They always do. I admire them as sportspeople.”
Steyn: “It is something I would also like to do and expect my team to do. No matter what happens on the field, it should stay there. We appreciate good sportsmanship. It wasn’t something that was planned. It was just so natural. It is one of my best cricketing moments.”
The New Zealand players were dispersed between the viewing area, the dugout and the changing rooms. The race was on to the middle.
Guptill: “I was in the viewing room and there were only a couple of us there. When G