Incredible, just incredible. Amid scenes of rare passion, of the like New Zealand has never seen for a cricket match, Grant Elliott played the innings of his life to carry his adopted country into the World Cup final against the land of his birth. With five needed off two balls, but effectively four because a tie would have been enough for New Zealand due to them finishing higher in their group, Elliott pulled an injured Dale Steyn high over mid-on to ensure New Zealand’s adventure would stretch all the way to Melbourne.
It was a breathtaking match throughout, but the finish was something spectacular. The quarter-finals had been bemoaned for not providing a close contest. This, though, was an epic. It was also going to be historic in any case with neither side previously reaching a World Cup final, but while everything pointed to an even game it was not guaranteed.
How it delivered as New Zealand, riding on a ferocious assault byBrendon McCullum, were pushed into a position of authority by a stand of 103 between Elliott and Corey Anderson who played another composed innings. Anderson, though, should have been run out on 33 when Rilee Rossouw pinged a poor throw towards the stumps with him miles out of his ground, instead of giving AB de Villiers time to run in.
It came down to 46 needed off 31 balls when Anderson top edged to catch high into the night sky. Luke Ronchi then picked out deep square-leg to leave 29 needed off 17 balls with Daniel Vettori joining Elliott.
Then it became 12 off the last over after Elliott was given a life on the last ball of the penultimate over when he top-edged towards deep square leg where Farhaan Behardien and JP Duminy collided. A bye was scampered to the keeper off the first ball of the last, but then Elliott lost the strike again. Wait, though. Steyn was limping with what appeared a calf injury. He had treatment and charged in. Vettori squeezed a boundary behind square on off. Then another bye as New Zealand showed great awareness, before Elliott’s final, crowning, moment to put an indelible seal on an extraordinary home campaign for the co-hosts.
South Africa’s players slumped to their knees, emotions on full display. Some did not move from their outfield positions for a few moments. Elliott offered a consoling hand to Steyn, much as Andrew Flintoff had done to Brett Lee at Edgbaston in 2005. New Zealand’s players charged onto the outfield, led by the inspirational captain who had sparked the demanding chase of 298 with a blistering display.
Only one higher total had been successfully chased on this ground in ODIs, but six overs of McCullum, after the match had been trimmed to 43 overs by rain, completely changed the complexion. McCullum has shredded attacks before in this tournament, but given the occasion and the bowlers in front of him it almost defied belief. Fourth ball he drove Steyn on the up over cover for six then he helped fetch 18 off Vernon Philander’s first over. But it was in Steyn’s third over that McCullum’s hitting went truly berserk as he drilled him straight down the ground for six and hooked another – that one taking him to a 22-ball fifty – as the over cost 25.
It brought the required rate down from nearly seven-an-over to a run-a-ball. South Africa were rattled, but managed to halt McCullum in the nick of time when he pulled Morne Morkel to mid-on. He departed to an ovation that will linger long, yet unlike his previous barrages this was not enough to make the result certain. When Kane Williamson dragged on against Morkel, South Africa were back in the ascendency.
Amid McCullum’s display it was easy to forget the man at the other end had just scored 237. Martin Guptill had only faced 11 balls when McCullum fell, but he and Ross Taylor steadily rebuilt the innings until one of Taylor’s bad habits surfaced at the worst time. He played the ball square, there was hesitation, from both batsmen, over the single and Guptill just kept running to the dressing room. Taylor flung his head in the air.
There was no reprieve for Taylor, either, as he tickled a catch down the leg side off Duminy and at 149 for 4 the semi-final was starting to look New Zealand’s glass-ceiling for the seventh time. However, Elliott and Anderson did not panic. They picked off loose deliveries, regularly making use of the short straight boundaries.
Anderson’s let-off came, but it was still far from a comfortable ask even if the mood was changing. The first two overs of the batting Powerplay brought just 11, then Morkel went for 12, including a six over deep square by Elliott, and the same tally came off Imran Tahir who had bowled superbly to help quell the early charge. De Villiers felt he had to bowl himself and it would not have been beyond him to win the match. With each wicket, New Zealand responded. It was the counter punching of two outstanding cricket teams with their eye on the ultimate prize.
The question will be asked if South Africa came out on the wrong side of the Duckworth-Lewis calculations after their innings was interrupted with de Villiers in full flow and Faf du Plessis set for a hundred in the 38th over. On resumption they plundered 65 in five overs, mainly due to David Miller’s 18-ball 49 as de Villiers lost the strike, but the adjusted 298 in 43 did feel less daunting than the 360 in 50 that could have been on the cards. All speculation, though.
That South Africa could not cut loose until the 30th over was credit to New Zealand’s bowlers, led by the outstanding Trent Boult who took two early scalps to make himself New Zealand’s leading wicket-taker at a World Cup with 21 victims ahead of Geoff Allott’s 20 in 1999. However, for the first time in the tournament fielding let them down as four chances, albeit two tough ones, were missed.
Key to the reconnaissance was du Plessis. Worked over early on by Boult and the brisk Matt Henry, who was called-up at the last minute to replace Adam Milne, du Plessis soaked up the pressure rather than succumb to it. He had been desperate for another knockout contest against New Zealand after the heated quarter-final four years ago which ended with South Africa on the losing side. By a fluke of results he got his wish but in the end there was no redemption.