The wildest dreams of 41,279 hearts came one step closer to realisation on a blow-hot blow-wet autumn night in Auckland as New Zealand’s fire burned bright enough to overcome dogged South African opposition, the elements and the occasion.
Set 298 to win on Tuesday (March 24) from 43 overs after just under two hours were lost to a rain break, New Zealand began in a new-age Brendon McCullum blaze towards glory, then fell back on their greatest traditional strength, good old-fashioned teamwork. The sum of New Zealand’s parts, on the field, with the ball and finally, gloriously, with the bat, was enough to steal a four-wicket win with one ball remaining, putting them in their first World Cup final.
When Grant Elliott, born in Johannesburg and cricket bred at Gauteng, Griqualand West and Trasvaal, set himself up perfectly to bludgeon a Dale Steyn short ball deep into the stands at midwicket, the roar that rang through Eden Park was one that will reverberate at this great stadium for years to come.
Chasing 298 from 43 overs in a clutch game was never going to be straightforward, and McCullum burst out of the traps, spoiling for a fight, whirling like a dervish, his blade chopping away with the speed of a helicopter and providing the innings lift-off in much the same fashion.
Martin Guptill, fresh from an unbeaten 237, was left gaping as McCullum took 18 off Vernon Philander, 14 off Morne Morkel and an astounding 25 off Dale Steyn. In an opening stand of 71, Guptill had just 6, when McCullum fell on his sword, attempting one compulsive big shot too many to find mid-on. McCullum’s 26-ball 59 had chopped the legs off the required run-rate, leaving his mates with 227 runs to get at a sedate six per over.
But, things would prove anything but straightforward as Williamson (6) chopped on, Guptill (34) was run out after being sold a dummy by Taylor (30), who himself fell just when the time was ripe to go big.
South Africa were back in the game big time, just one wicket away from having New Zealand’s wicketkeeper at the crease. But, this was hardly on the minds of the lower order, McCullum’s legacy of thinking only of victory alive and well in Grant Elliott and Anderson.
Elliott showed that character counts for more than technique in a tight spot, and Anderson backed his not inconsiderable ball-striking skills to the hilt. Without attempting anything remotely outlandish, Elliott and Anderson put on 103 for the fifth wicket, pushing South Africa to the brink.
With 46 needed from the final five overs, Anderson (58) was surprised by a Morkel steepler, the pull shot sending the ball high into the inky sky for du Plessis to settle under the catch.
Elliott, however, did not take his eyes off the ball, or the ultimate prize for one moment. Keeping in touch with the required rate, pulling out the big shot every time the pressure built, Elliott kept defeat at bay and victory in sight.
With 12 needed off the final Steyn over, it was Daniel Vettori who set the ball rolling, digging Steyn out wide of third-man for a four. Then, a scampered single, and five were needed from two balls, but even a tie would have got New Zealand through.
Sealing the deal, Elliott, unbeaten on 84, got his team across the line, Steyn was on his back on the pitch, du Plessis weeping at point and Morkel disconsolate at fine-leg. One man’s joy was another’s heartbreak, at the end of a see-saw day.
When AB de Villiers chose to bat, McCullum unleashed his mob of fast bowlers, packing the slips cordon and daring South Africa’s batsmen to attack against the white ball that was curling at pace. Trent Boult was wickedly hard to play, Quinton de Kock being worked over repeatedly before Hashim Amla fell, dragging one on. De Kock, who had been dropped early on, did not make it count, sending Boult soaring to Tim Southee at third man, making it 31 for 2.
It was at this point that Rilee Rossouw and Faf du Plessis realised that being impudent was only going to end one way, and treated each ball with utmost respect. Du Plessis activated Test-match mode, consuming 56 balls to reach 26, without a single boundary, before changing gears. Coming down the pitch to Tim Southee, confident that the ball was old enough not to swing in the 21st over, du Plessis drove through the line and over mid-off to break the shackles. In the same over, with mid-off vacant, du Plessis pressed forward to punch to the boundary.
Rossouw, who had been careful without quite getting bogged down as much as du Plessis, was carving out a crucial innings of his own. With the partnership building, McCullum was forced to switch tactics, for a period using part-timers in one-over spells.
It was Corey Anderson who broke the 83-run third-wicket partnership, Guptill leaping to his right at point, not quite gravity-defying astronaut-style like Vettori against Marlon Samuels, but a fine effort at full stretch nonetheless.
New Zealand’s joy did not last long, for de Villiers, picking off his first boundary off the 17th ball he faced, occupied the crease with a sense of tranquil. It was as though he was confident the pressure would be transferred back onto the bowlers. Where New Zealand’s quicks had the batsmen on a leash – even Matt Henry, playing his first game of the tournament as a last-minute replacement for the injured Adam Milne managed two maiden overs – de Villiers broke free and bolted.
De Villiers picked off the gaps, repeatedly exploiting the vacant midwicket region before the field was changed. As soon as the slip went out, de Villiers opened the face of the bat to deflect the ball into the newly created gap. This was a master batsmen with an imagination running wild, an artist who had recently discovered the full power of his craft, and de Villiers raced to 60 off only 38 balls.
Du Plessis, who was building something of a modern One-Day International epic, batting with the kind of temperament so rarely seen, had 82 hard-fought runs to his name when rain brought New Zealand relief.
When play resumed, du Plessis fell straightaway, New Zealand using the referral wisely to uphold the glove to keeper they recognised but Ian Gould failed to detect.
De Villiers, never one to go big from ball one, only managed 5 further runs from 7 balls in the five overs left in the shortened innings, but David Miller bailed his team out in style. Sticking to the style his father taught him as a young boy – if it’s in the V, it’s in the tree, if it’s in the arc, it’s out of the park – Miller blasted 49 off only 18 to lift South Africa to 281, which left New Zealand with a Duckworth-Lewis adjusted target of 298 from 43 overs.
It was a tall ask, but McCullum’s men were up to the task.