For the Kiwis, it is exorcism after six losing semi-finals, for the poor old South Africans further haunting. For them, defeat was made more cruel by the fact that it was an emigre from South Africa who drove home the final nail. Grant Elliott, in all its senses a journeyman, blithely clouted the second last ball of the match — delivered by Dayle Steyn, no less — over long-on for six to consummate a memorable triumph.
In the echo of that blow, others could be heard. For New Zealand, it was Kane Williamson’s six to beat Australia three weeks ago, with plenty of overs in hand, but only one wicket. More than ever, they present as a team of destiny. For cricket, it was Elliott’s magnamity to go first to the crestfallen Steyn, invoking Andrew Flintoff and Brett Lee and Edgbaston 2005. Steyn had cramped so severely during the final over that he needed medication on the field. New Zealand seized the day, South Africa seized up. “I felt quite sorry for him,” said Elliott. “I felt quite sorry for a lot of the South African guys.”
For South Africa, there was resonance from succumbing to Australia in a semi-final in Birmingham in 1999, when they had four balls to hit the winning run and couldn’t. Tuesday night’s calamnitous misadventure was for fieldsmen J.P. Duminy and Farhaan Berhardien to collide at fine leg while trying separately to catch Elliott from the last ball of the second-last over. In World Cups, they carry the mark of the forever doomed. “It hurts quite a bit,” said captain A.B. de Villers. “Gutted. We had our chances, and we didn’t take them.”
Random played its part, but so did nerve, held and lost. One high ball was reviewed in case it had hit Spidercam’s wires before it was caught. Another in the dying overs — was there ever such a misnomer? — fell between three fieldsmen. Run-outs went abegging, but so did runs as the match appeared to ghost out of New Zealand’s reach. “I think we left the chase a little bit late, to be honest,” admitted Elliott. “It was very stressful.”
Four symmetrical acts of 38 overs, five, five and 38 again, constituted this classic. In the first, South Africa made 3/216. Faf du Plessis, duly, and AB de Villers, rapidly, gave them a solid footing. Then the autumnal rains came, forcing all to recalibrate. The second act was a madcap sketch in which David Miller blazed 49 from 17 balls, within a run and a delivery of the fastest half-century in World Cup history, and South Africa rested on 5/281. De Villiers would not blame the rain. “It was too long ago,” he said. “We adapted. We had our chances after that.”
When the Duckworth-Lewis matrix was applied, the Kiwis had 298 to get, and only 43 overs to get them. To the 2015 World Cup cricketer, the impossible can be done immediately; miracle-making remains a work in progress.
Brendon McCullum, New Zealand personified, introduced the third act thunderously with a 22-ball 50, for him in this tournament the going rate. Three times he crashed Steyn for six, prefiguring night’s dirty end for the great South African. Don’t write this off as Eden Park’s mini-boundaries; McCullum was clearing them on a scale that Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson would not dare to script. “When in doubt, go for aggression,” he had declared at the toss, not so much motto as philosophy. The crowd played its appointed part; all day, the South Africans bowled and hit into the teeth of its roar. The Eden Park stands heaved and bellowed as they cannot have since the 2011 rugby World Cup final. At five overs, the Kiwis were 0/71.
But when McCullum fell, it was clear that the match had been inverted. For the Kiwis, it was five overs of icing first, 38 overs of cake to come. It is the harder way around. A run-out, a played-on, a leg-side wicketkeeper’s catch; the fates were conspiring. Elliott and Corey Anderson opened the path with a 100-run stand at run-a-ball. Wickets fell, and with them hopes, revived immediately by a lusty blow. Clamminess appeared on every hand, on both sides of the fence.
As at the end of the South African innings, a T20 dynamic was at work, meaning that victory always appeared just beyond reach and yet remained there to be grasped – for both teams. Four Morne Morkel dot balls tightened Anderson, who holed out to the next. Luke Ronchi followed, leaving New Zealand in the care of Elliott and Daniel Vettori, two creaking 36-year-olds. Twelve off the last over, and after one leg bye to the wicketkeeper, they agreed: no more, it would be fours or sixes now. In such circumstances, said Elliott, thinking was the enemy of doing, and so he just hit.
And so it transpired that the Kiwis did have a miracle at the ready after all. “For the fans, and the four million people in New Zealand, this was for them,” said Elliott. He knows his demographics as often only an immigrant does.
New Zealand’s cricket has been compelling in this tournament, sweeping up the country, making believers of sceptics and evangelists of believers. The Black Caps were literally the talk of the town in Auckland. This year, it would be different. But always when a good New Zealand cricket team emerges, a sense lingers that like a fable from middle earth, it will finish in a moment, and the lights will go up. Not this time; these Kiwis are for real.