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New Zealand Vs South Africa: The Kiwis Take Wing

24/03/2015 6:55 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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New Zealand’s Brendon McCullum plays a shot while batting against South Africa during their Cricket World Cup semifinal in Auckland, New Zealand, Tuesday, March 24, 2015. (AP Photo/David Rowland)

Where did South Africa lose the match to New Zealand? Was it the strong nerves under pressure and the magnificent six hit by Grant Elliott in the nail-biting climax, the run-out opportunity and some half chances that went unused, or the fact that rain disrupted the match at a time when AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis had the bowlers at their mercy and threatened to take to score to 350-plus?

All of these were contributory factors, no doubt. And Grant Elliot, who batted for more than 25 overs to see his side through a chilling roller-coaster ride that tested skills and temperament was the deserving Man of the Match. In my opinion, though, it was Brendon McCullum's breathtaking, brutal assault on Dale Steyn that gave his side the impetus to New Zealand's win.

I had written yesterday that the outcome of this semi-final could well be decided with what happens at the start of the innings for both teams. The key contests I had picked were Amla versus Boult, and McCullum versus Steyn. As it happened, New Zealand won both.

But the more significant one was the second one. South Africa had done extremely well to atone for Amla's cheap dismissal by totalling 281 in 43 overs, leaving New Zealand a revised target of 298 to chase.

Despite some regret that rain had intervened at the wrong time for South Africa, this was still a formidable total, thanks to David Miller's blitzkrieg. An asking run-rate of nearly 7, against an attack that boasted Steyn, Morkel, Philander, Tahir, and Duminy -- who has sufficient experience as the part-time fifth bowler. It was tough, very tough.

McCullum knew that if he won this bout, the South Africans would be pushed on to the backfoot and make the rest of his team breathe easier.

What it called for was a good start. Even more important, perhaps, it needed nullifying the threat from Steyn, who had looked like he had finally come into his own in the quarter-final against Sri Lanka, after a string of disappointing performances.

This was the psychological hump New Zealand had to cross if they had to make victory possible. An early wicket or two would give Steyn - and by extension South Africa - such a massive boost that it would be near impossible to recover from.

new zealand south africa

McCullum knew that if he won this bout, the South Africans would be pushed on to the backfoot and make the rest of his team breathe easier. There was risk involved in launching a frontal assault on Steyn. But that risk was unavoidable. A watchful approach was impossible, given the magnitude of the target as well as the mental makeup of the opponents.

What followed was perhaps the most exhilarating passage of play in the World Cup yet. McCullum cut loose against Steyn in a fashion that not only the great bowler himself, nobody else would have anticipated, hitting him off his length with a series of strokes, conventional and unorthodox.

The fact that Steyn went for 76 runs off 8.5 overs tells its own story. His third over (the fifth of the innings) saw McCullum at his savage best as he was hit for a whopping 25 runs. This was the over in which the balance started tilting towards New Zealand.

Seeing their main bowler taken to the cleaners saw the South African shoulders wilt, even if just a bit. Simultaneously, it swelled the courage and conviction in the New Zealand dressing room. This match could be won, however stiff the target.

McCullum fell in the 7th over, buy by that time, New Zealand's score was 71 of which the New Zealand captain had scored a blazing 59 off just 26 deliveries. The impact of his batting in the first powerplay allowed the batsmen to follow with the facility to pace their innings.

This Guptill and Taylor first, and more tellingly, Elliott and Anderson, did quite superbly. Unlike the West Indians who had gone hell for leather in the quarter-finals, trying to hit every delivery out of the boundary, the New Zealand batsmen approached their task with strength of purpose and imagination.

The run-out of Guptill, and the soft dismissals of Taylor, Anderson and Ronchi showed that it wasn't only one side which was feeling the pressure, and beginning to choke.

Even so, it wasn't easy. The South Africans, despite the few fumbles, were not giving up. The run-out of Guptill, and the soft dismissals of Taylor, Anderson and Ronchi showed that it wasn't only one side which was feeling the pressure, and beginning to choke.

But Elliot, the most understated player in the side, held his nerve in the pulsating climax to finish the match with a rousing six that would have sent all of New Zealand into paroxysms of delight even as it sent South Africa into gloom.

The Kiwi had taken wing, the Proteas, alas, had to take the flight back home.

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